Uber driver Grant Madden
At no time previously did I ever have aspirations to have an Uber career.
On the last Friday in March, Good Friday, I arrived at my corporate office shortly before 6 am. Friday is always an early start as payroll is completed that day, and I was one of the first in the building. In the first two hours I completed approximately a third of payroll. At 8 am the telephone lines opened with a deluge of calls, and at 11 am the general manager addressed the entire operations team about taking care of our first customers, our employees. Payroll was completed at about 2 pm, and at 3 pm I was assigned tasks for completion on my days off over the weekend.
Morning at the Greenlight Hub in Santee. "Uber Help support is a misnomer, talk to a real person in the Greenlight Hub to get results."
A typical standard Friday.
At 4:45 pm, my supervisor asked me to accompany him on a walk. In a conference room I was met by the human resource manager, another client manager, and my separation check. By 4:50 pm, I was being escorted from the building as a former employee.
Pacific Beach boost area. On weekends between midnight and 2 am, there is 80 percent increase in fares.
On the drive home, crawling in rush hour traffic, I began to mathematically calculate how long I could go without an income. Mortgage, second mortgage, car payment —no, wait — there are two car payments, and car insurance that includes a driver under 25 years of age. The last check was not going to stretch that far. At home, my wife and I examined our savings and realized we had some breathing room.
I spent the following week hacking into our expenses and putting our tax return together. The final numbers gave me a clear picture of the dollar amount we needed to sustain ourselves in Southern California. While we had talked about leaving the state due to items like the gas tax, we were no longer financially equipped to make that departure. With the separation, we were going to have to stay for a while.
Driver app showing how long the queue is at airport
My resume got a work over and updated. In nine years with the same company I had advanced and specialized, however, as I was above the age of fifty, the opportunities for reemployment were dwindling. There wasn’t enough time left for career reinvention, I would have to stay in my chosen field.
My resume went out for a lower position with a competitor of my former company. When I interviewed they advised that the advertised position had long been filled, but offered me a minimum wage job part time job.
Surge in pricing shown on Uber driver's app
A well respected supervisor reached out to me when he heard I had been separated. During the conversation I recalled that I had found him as an Uber driver before he came to work for me. When I questioned him about it, he gave me some pointers of his experiences with the ride share program.
Uber markets itself as a peer-to-peer ridesharing network, which has since branched out into food deliveries and transport. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company has expanded across the globe, and importantly, into the locations where I had considered moving to when we left California.
The ridesharing program works off a cell phone-based application. The application (app) connects riders with independent drivers who use the Uber app, to deliver riders to their destination. In the city of San Diego where the public transportation networks are, at best marginal, I could see how this program would work well, especially for the “last mile” where public transports ended and the urban sprawl continued.
I perused a number of online forums and began to read of the experiences of the Uber driver in San Diego. I was most interested in the amount of income, and while several people did disclose some numbers, their estimations seemed inflated. When I looked into it deeper, I found some financial numbers that I could begin to work with.
The process of becoming an Uber driver is completed entirely online. A background check based on your social security number and a driver’s license histories are completed through their onboarding platform. Vehicle registration and insurance documents are uploaded through the onboarding platform; the only physical requirement was a vehicle inspection.
Each vehicle considered for Uber is reviewed by a mechanic at their facility. I arrived at opening time, along with about five other people. There were retirees, college students, men and women; there was no demographic to group us all together except that we had a car.
A mechanic went over the other vehicles, failing one before he got to mine. The mechanic’s inspection appeared cosmetic — lights, turn signals, reverse lights, seatbelts, and mileage.
“What sort of car is this?” the mechanic asked.
“It’s a 2017 Equinox,” I said.
“How do you spell that,” he asked. “I don’t get many of these cars coming through.”
In the coming days I would begin to see more of the Uber and their competitor’s icons on vehicles across the county. Most vehicles were four cylinder and hybrid cars, several larger vehicles, and a few sport utility vehicles similar to mine. Only once did I see a Toyota Tundra truck with an Uber sticker. I had no idea there were that many drivers working within the county, and I began to wonder whether this may have been a mistake, adding to an already over-saturated market.
The following Monday I was cleared to drive. An email arrived at lunchtime advising me to report to the local office, called the Greenlight Hub. In Santee, the Greenlight Hub is housed inside the Sprint Office at Trolley Square. I walked in and the Uber staff member, Donna, remembered me.
“You were just in on Thursday; that was quick. Some background checks can take weeks.”
Donna handed me the driver’s packet for Uber, a small introduction book, two Uber cling=on stickers, and a contact phone number. I was good to go. No Human Resource training class, no orientation, just turn the app on and drive.
“Are you excited?” Donna asked.
I didn’t tell her I was petrified. In the three days it took to complete my background check, unexpected bills arrived, bills which normally would be covered within the regular paycheck that I used to receive, but now, were draining the financial coffers.
That night I went home and reviewed the online training videos. The training videos linked to other people who had recorded their joys and tribulations with Uber. I left the personal vendetta videos alone and had a good night’s sleep, expecting to start a new career in the morning.
The alarm clock was no longer set so I slept until almost 8 am. After completing chores around the house, I showered then dressed for the first day. The choice of attire was long sleeve dress shirt, pressed pants and black shineable shoes. There is no uniform standard for an Uber driver; however, as I was providing a customer service, I didn’t want to look like the homeless.
I boarded my vehicle and drove to the local gas station where I refueled and then purchased a soda. Outside, I gulped down the first swig to wet my mouth, and gently, slid the Uber application button.
I was online.
And I sat and waited.
The first passenger request for a ride arrived within about ten minutes. Within the industry, it’s called a “ping”. I started up and headed off towards Pepper Drive El Cajon where my rider was waiting at their residence. On arrival, the rider was standing at the exact location where the Uber GPS (global positioning satellite) placed her.
“Good morning ma’am, I’m your Uber driver today.”
The lady provides me with her name, I open the rear passenger door for her and we headed off.
“This is my first Uber ride,” she says. I don’t tell her that she’s my first rider, but I did have the feeling of two lovers losing their virginity together; new and awkward. The route that’s mapped out to her destination is a little skewed through back streets. I'm from the area, and it didn’t make any sense to me. While it was the most direct route, by means of a two-block deviation south to Broadway, I could avoid the local stop signs and shave time off the trip for her. I bypass the suggested turn. The application recalculated the revision and sure enough, three minutes come off the route.
At the destination, I located the destination point through the Uber app, which again placed me exactly where the passenger wanted to be dropped off — at the back of a set of townhouses on a closed estate. There’s no way I could have found that location without the use of GPS.
I alighted and opened the door for her, bid her a good day, and then rated the rider.
The Uber application works on a driver and rider rating system. The rider gets to rate the driver based on their vehicle, their attire and demeanor, and likewise, the driver gets to rate the rider. I wasn’t sure what the benefit of rating the rider provided until about three weeks later.
With my first ride down I logged off from the application and began to make some notes. While I had provided banking details at the time of the vehicle inspection, I still wanted to track my income and expenses. This Uber gig had the potential of replacing my income, but it would need to be managed as a professional transport business.
After making some notes I turned the application back on and almost immediately got another ping. The application works on assigning the best possible match to the passenger. The matching process uses a series of algorithms based upon such factors as estimated time of arrival for pick-up, local demand levels, the trip distance, the hour of the day, and importantly the passenger origin and destination. There are reported to be over 500 input features that Uber uses to match a ride. On the other end of the application, drivers receive the passenger rating, a passenger name, but drivers do not know the destination until they arrive and start the trip.
I arrived at the passenger’s residence at another closed community. Outside the gates, the application began to calculate a waiting time, which would pay me a small fee for a couple of minutes of sitting around. The passenger walks out with luggage, and I was on my first airport run.
After loading the luggage I made my way to the airport. The application gave me a different route than I would have taken, but unlike my first ride, it looked to be a better route. The application is not always wrong. Down Highway 94 to the city, briefly onto Interstate 5 and then surface streets for the last couple of miles. After unloading at the terminal where rideshare companies now have their own platform adjacent to taxis and shuttle busses, the rider gave me my first monetary tip through the application.
I couldn’t remain standing at the rideshare platform to make my notes, so I moved off and headed to the nearby cell phone lot where an area has been set aside for Transportation Network Companies such as Uber. As I got closer, an additional icon appeared on my Uber application. It listed not only how many rideshare cars were present, but my position in the queue.
The airport staging area for rideshare drivers is referred to as the “pig pen." Rideshare drivers operate on a first-in-first-out staging area for airport rides.
While waiting for the next ride, I came to understand why drivers call it the “pig pen.” There is no shade, no running water, and the portable toilets on the site look as if they have been transported from a rock concert weekend without being serviced. They looked unsuitable for ladies’ use. Although it was my first day, observing the attire of drivers was even more shocking. Overweight men in yoga pants, ladies still wearing fluffy pink bedroom slippers, and a bearded guy wearing camouflage shorts, long white socks, and flip flops. Who drives in long socks and flip flops?
Such attire is regulated through the taxi industries, who are the most vocal opponents to the ridesharing industry. Having cornered the market across the globe, taxi companies are concerned their income base was being eroded by companies like Uber who want to offer a different standard. Taxi companies claim that Uber is working around regulations, and Uber drivers are not doing themselves a service with their casual approach to clothing.
After approximately 20 minutes, the application advised of a pick up at the airport. In the waiting time I had made notes and cleaned the exterior windows of my car. Arriving at the terminal, my next passenger made a comment.
“Oh, this car is so clean.” They would later rate my ride with five stars and record that comment on my profile. The comments and rating would be visible to future riders that were assigned to me. Uber would send me an email by the end of the day proclaiming that I had my first rider report.
The drive out to Escondido would be my best fare of the week, even when Uber took their variable percentage off the top. Uber’s percentage is usually 25 percent, but there are times where their slice of the fare may be as much as 60 percent depending on the up-front pricing model that was agreed to by the passenger. At other times, Uber has so many promotions available on the market that they would end up losing money on the ride. This may account for why the global financial losses for Uber jumped 61 percent in 2017 from $2.8B to $4.5B.
Driving home the first day, I could see the income potential, but I still had to balance it out with my expenses: gasoline, insurance, and vehicle depreciation.
The second day on the road was busy. Ping after ping kept me going constantly for several hours, with no time to document earnings between fares. That day I experienced the entire range of rides that Uber offers.
Uber has a low-cost Express Pool which operates on a short walk by the rider to a selected pick-up location, and another walk at the end of the ride to their intended destination. Uber’s basic fare is Pool, where the rider nominates a destination, and the rider agrees that they may have to share the vehicle with other people. My thought was that this would be a great money saver for passengers to cover “the last mile” from transit centers to their residency. So did the University of California Davis in 2017 when their research report on the impact of ride hailing services in the United States was published.
The service I performed most of my driving with is Uber X where the rider has the vehicle to himself. This is ideal for airport runs, and where the rider has to be a destination at a certain time. He gets the car exclusively for himself and his party. There are other higher levels, but I lacked the vehicle or licensing requirements to meet their standard. Over the first week I began to understand how passengers utilized the application instead of alternative transport methods.
It was about ten days into driving that I had my first issue for which I would need to connect with Uber Help. A passenger had requested a pool ride to Point Loma, and along the route, a second passenger had requested a pool ride to the Cabrillo National Monument. When I picked up the second passenger, he boarded without saying a word. When the first passenger was dropped off, I turned to the second passenger.
“Do you have enough leg room in the back there, sir?”
“No speak English,” was his response.
I needed a couple of minutes to determine that he was a South Korean national using a cell phone with Google translator to assist him to see the city sights. I speak three languages, but Korean isn’t one of them. We couldn’t get a conversation going so I moved off. At the Cabrillo Monument National Park Entrance Gate, the ranger asked for the entry fee.
“I’m an Uber driver doing a drop off,” I explained.
“It’s still seven dollars.”
Uber reimburses all tolls on roads incurred during a ride so I reached into my wallet and handed off my Visa Card. The ranger handed me a brochure which I passed back to my rider, and I kept the park entry receipt. We moved on. At the bottom of the cliffs, the rider’s intended destination, the cell phone coverage ceased. When I reached the final destination and parked, I wasn’t able to end the ride within the application. If I couldn’t end the ride, I thought I may not get paid. More of a priority though, was how my non-English-speaking passenger would get out of the park.
We stepped outside and in the best sign language I could muster, I signaled that when he wanted to leave, he would have to walk back up the hill to order an Uber. He smiled and waved me off as he went on his way towards the tide pools, despite the rather large sign which said it was closed. That he apparently couldn’t read.
One of the local rangers was nearby and I explained the situation to her.
“There’s no cell phone coverage here,” she said. “He’ll have to work it out for himself.”
She was probably not the poster child for San Diego tourism, but short of telephoning police, she was all I had, and I left the matter with her.
Driving back towards the Navy Base and out of the park, cell phone coverage returned. I pulled to the side of the road and was able to end the fare, then immediately used the application to report an issue. The application generates an email which goes off shore to be answered in a call center. Within a few hours, the call center got back to me with a scripted answer.
“If you forget to end a ride, please log off the ride when you remember.”
The Help Center was not living up to its name. I scoured the local Uberpeople.net forums to see if the situation had been raised before. That didn’t prove successful, and by the end of the night, my park fee had not been added to my fare. A second email was sent to the Help Center which came back with their answer “it doesn’t appear that you went through a toll, so we’re not paying it.”
“It doesn’t appear”? I thought that being a national park and not a freeway toll was the issue so I copied the national park map which details that all persons who enter the park must pay the fee, and then overlaid it across the GPS path of the route to identify where the park entry was. That didn’t help either, as the help center response was much the same. “You didn’t pass through a toll, so we’re not paying it.”
Driving to the Greenlight Hub the next morning I was furious. The forums were filled with horror stories of Uber and other ridesharing drivers being shortchanged on fares, surges, and tolls. The original email I sent and the subsequent emails I followed up with disputing their claim were printed for distribution. I was having a Family Guy moment, not sure how far I would go to get my money.
On my arrival at the Greenlight Hub, there was a line of three drivers in front of me. I waited in turn and listened in on their conversations, also of money not paid. Larger amounts than mine, one was an entire ride that was above $100. In Southern California where people live from paycheck to paycheck, I was beginning to feel my own $7 national park fee was paltry, when the staff called me up.
Three minutes. Within three minutes not only had the Greenlight Hub verified my story, but they credited my account for the park entry without ever asking for my receipt. I walked out having learned a lesson — Uber Help support is a misnomer, talk to a real person in the Greenlight Hub to get results.
I stayed away from working at night, particularly when the bars were closing. I had done my share of graveyard work with my previous employer, despite knowing that it would be a profitable time with Uber. In my second week, Uber sent me an email offering a “quest”. Uber outlined a couple of areas and listed times where I could earn a boost fare.
Boost fares are forecast locations where a surge fare will occur. Surge fares occur during times of high demand for rides. Fares may increase to ensure those who need a ride can get one. Additionally, as I was learning, I could see within the Uber app where the surge was occurring in real time. Later in the week when I was sitting at home and looked at the app to see my home region was in surge. Had I been dressed more appropriately than pajamas, I would have logged in and driven to get the passengers moving.
The areas in the first quest were as expected —downtown bars and Pacific Beach between midnight and 2 am Saturday and Sunday. With a potential of 80 percent boost increase in fares, it was tempting, but not enough for me to risk cleaning up the vomit of a drunken passenger, not even for a $200 cleaning fee that Uber would charge the culprit.
The second boost area was Pacific Beach again but on Saturday afternoon between 5 pm and 7 pm — that had some appeal. While only a 30 percent increase in fare, it would give me an opportunity to earn additional income if I needed to. I opted to work on Saturday afternoon.
Unfortunately, I made an error. When I boarded my vehicle on Saturday at home, I turned the application on. Almost immediately I began to receive ride requests — and consequently, never got near Pacific Beach. A valuable lesson was learned — leave the application off and drive to the boost and/or surge.
At the end of the first week I looked at my earnings. Solely based on the income, it was hard to tell whether there was profitability in this. Uber had been in an out of courts across the globe regarding employees' status. Currently, all Uber drivers are independent contractors, responsible for their own business records. At the end of the year, Uber will issue a 1099 for earnings, but that wasn’t going to help me in the interim. I needed some ridesharing financial help.
Through the Uberpeople.net forums, I discovered Harry Campbell; former San Diego resident who operates the website therideshareguy.com. Campbell chronicles the ups and downs of ridesharing over a four-year period. His blog and podcast have helped revolutionized the rideshare industry, and how independent operators perform financially.
In one of his podcasts he talks with Bill Tesauro, a part-time driver who happens to be a tax accountant in Sorrento Valley. Bill shares his Uber spreadsheet for reporting income, and includes his two prior years’ income reports as a rideshare driver. Campbell has 30,000 views on this one video and 27,000 subscribers. I immediately download the spreadsheet and begin inputting my numbers.
The Excel spreadsheet accepted all my numbers and began to calculate my earnings. They weren’t great. They wouldn’t stop the bank accounts from hemorrhaging, but it may keep me afloat a little longer in order to increase my profitability. I had to get smarter about the way that I worked. I choose to go another week with Uber.
The flexibility of Uber meant that I was not locked in to a set schedule. Unlike my previous employment where the hours were set and I was still expected to have a 24/7 response, Uber was positioned to let me choose the hours that I could work. This was beneficial when in the second week after being separated; another member of the family received a poor medical prognosis requiring hospitalization. Sitting down with notes, I mapped out a game plan.
Residing in the East County was clearly beneficial to me, and for the income, to work Uber in the early hours of the weekday mornings and capture the airport traveler.
“That’s one ride downtown,” I thought. “I’m not going to deadhead back in the hope of another ride. What about the rest of the morning?”
I theorized that the downtown hotels would also have travelers heading to the airport, so after dropping off, I would park near the downtown hotels for their short airport runs. For the period approaching lunch, I looked at the number of incoming flight to Lindberg Field and summarized those passengers from destinations east would be arriving and need transport to hotels. As much as I didn’t want to sit at the pig pen, my availability fit the needs of the airport traveler. I put the plan into effect.
In the first two days it worked flawlessly. At 4:30 am I would sign on and drive until almost 10 am, at which time I would park in the pig pen. The break would allow me to use portable toilets in the lot, and if needed, freshen up the car for the last airport shuttle of the day, and then home by noon to care for the family member.
On the third day, Wednesday, the theory fell over and in retrospect; I questioned myself on who flies out of San Diego on a Wednesday? Most airline passengers depart at the beginning or end of the week. This accounted for no requests to the airport on each Wednesday morning for three weeks. I learned to accept that for my schedule, Wednesday as a slow day, and as needed, improvised.
After three weeks I had some data that I could begin applying to economic metrics . Over five calendar days I was averaging 32 hours behind the wheel for about 700 miles, with earnings at almost $19 an hour. My fuel costs were about $120 a week, and I would be able claim as a tax deduction, the car insurance and cell phone fees that I was previously paying and still had to meet. While not ideal, it appeared I could stop the financial bleeding of our accounts.
I began to get a little more selective on my riders as well. Passenger ratings are determined by rides that have been previously been taken on Uber. The variations in passenger ratings began to have some clarity.
Riders that are rated five stars are either new accounts or first-time riders. I became reluctant to accept them.
Riders that are rated 4.90 – 4.99 are expected to be clean, have no prior issues, and as fellow drivers described, tip well. They became my core business.
Rider ratings go down in varying decimal points. The rating has no bearing on the cost of the ride, but I discovered that it did affect which rides I would accept.
In the third week I received a ping for a rider with a rating of 4.62; that’s really low. I was reluctant to accept but it was a slow Wednesday. I arrived at the address and the rider is nowhere to be seen. The waiting time starts.
Walking the sidewalk back in forth of the address I see no movement, and text the rider that I am waiting outside. From another house across the street, two ladies walk out. They’re sisters and one is saying goodbye to the other. She boards my vehicle and at 11:30 am reeks of alcohol, she is a smelly unshowered drunk. I slide the application “on” and see that the destination is National City. We head off and she’s rambling on about going somewhere else other than her scheduled destination. As I approach an exit she screams “turn here.” I think it’s because she’s throwing up in my vehicle when in fact it’s to pick up her eight-year-old son from school, who has returned from an excursion to the beach. He boards my vehicle and empties his backpack collection of seashells on the back seat – along with about two buckets of sand. His mother can’t keep a sentence together and when we arrive at the final destination, staggers out of the back seat, breaking the Apple phone charger I have in the rear USB port.
The back seat reeks of booze and the black upholstery is covered in sand. The day is over. I report the disaster to Uber who will later charge her a cleaning fee. Forty minutes to vacuum the car, two hours to air out the smell — let me rate the rider. One star. And that’s being generous.
There’s nothing I can do to change my experience with the passenger, but I need to let the next driver know. The next driver may look at her rating and without knowing the events, decline services. She’ll eventually get a driver though, just not me.
The change to an Uber career brought about other changes within me. In my previous employment, after-hours calls were considered “part of the job”, and I slept with a cell phone beside the bed. There were no such calls occurring with Uber; no one telephoned instructing me to “go out” after fourteen hours at the office. No one telephoned after hours, on the weekend, or when I was out of state on an approved absence, and most importantly, I didn’t have a supervisor who was abusive of the hours of his salaried employees. As I got selective on the rides I would accept and began to manage the unpaid mileage between trips, my income began to climb back towards the same level of my previous employer, while still comparatively reducing the number of hours that I worked. My sleeping habits improved becoming more regular; eight hours a night was now the standard and not the Saturday morning catch up. My blood pressure; which had climbed with my former supervisor, returned to normal levels, and I had more time for exercise and relaxation. It felt like I was becoming human again after being eliminated from a demonic supervisor.
I didn’t select an Uber career, it just happened while I was looking for a stop-gap measure. It was not without some losses, though. As an independent contractor, I was responsible for my own retirement, my own savings for sick leave, and my own vacation pay. My earnings were not yet at that level, but if I had taken the part-time position, the vacation time would not be available for at least a year. I figured I had a year with Uber to save up for that.