A few thoughts on my first two weeks of driving for Uber in Eugene, Oregon. Press play and listen peacefully as you read through the post below:
In December I signed up to drive for Uber. Uber, for the uninitiated, is a "rideshare service" app that provides a framework for other people to pay for a ride in a stranger's car, provided it's new-ish and clean. For the tech-savvy consumer, it's a boon — Uber rides are almost universally more timely, clean, polite and inexpensive than traditional cabs. But many many people don't like Uber. It's a journalistic commonplace now to publish articles wherein traditional cab companies, and the city governments that benefit from the cab racket, bitch about Uber's avoidance of licensing fees. If you want to read Uber drivers themselves bitching about Uber, it's quite easy to do that. If you want to read about the Uber economy and how it maybe foretells certain doom for humanity, that's easy too. But you won't hear it from me right now, though. You'll just hear some stories and ideas from my first two weeks at it, in the special little town of Eugene, Oregon.
Why I do it, briefly: The nature of my current work situation sometimes leaves me with about two or three unstructured hours in the late afternoon. In the past, I would use that time to do what I've always done: sit at home and read, usually alone. Now, I sit in my car, about equidistant from downtown and the University of Oregon, and read, alone ... except usually within 10 minutes my phone will make an ungodly beeping noise and I'll toddle off to pick someone up and drive them somewhere. These people have consented to a cashless transaction that pays me, for now:
($.30/minute + $1.75/mile + $3.00 base) - (.2 x fare) - $1.00 flat fee - gas - wear and tear - tax as an independent contractor + tip that they are discouraged from giving me and I am supposed to refuse (I've been offered just one, and accepted)
I haven't even bothered to calculate all my own mitigating variables but, from reading other drivers who have, I doubt I'm clearing more than $10/hr. I'm not in it solely for the money, though (God help anyone who is), and it's certainly better than nothing. Below is a spreadsheet that a redditor somewhere else in the country made during his first week.
Anyway, back to the mechanics. As an Uber driver, you're free to be online as often as you like, provided you're in your car and ready to head to your pickup point right away. In theory, you're supposed to turn off the driver ("Partner," in Uber corporate-speak) app if you step into the Circle K for Red Bull or Swisher Sweets or whatever, but no one does. There's someone in Eugene who lives near the airport who quite clearly has the driver app on all day every day as he sits in his house and waits for pings from arriving flyers. In fact, I know his exact address. How? You can use the Uber rider app to see where all the drivers are.
So you play the Uber driver and rider apps off of each other and try to avoid getting boxed in by other drivers, like it's a city-scaled game of Go. If you're boxed in as a driver, you'll never be closest to someone pinging for a ride.
So someone pings me. I rocket away to pick them up, dropping classic cabbie moves like speeding down side streets, cutting across multiple lanes, liberally using the horn, etc. (After I pick the rider up I'm on better behavior ... I want a five-star driver rating after all). I also take a screenshot of the "waybill" with their full name on it, so that I know who to tell the cops about if they do something heinous to me or my vehicle. If the person is on the UO campus, the data network is so scrambled that their GPS positioning is probably off by some amount, anywhere from 20 yards to several blocks. In that case, I call their number and orchestrate the pickup in conversation. They hop in, I drive them around town or across campus, we chat or maybe not (see below), they get out, they don't tip, I give them a 5-star rider rating, I go back online and maybe recycle to a strategically located parking lot while I wait for the next ping. Easy peasy.
Eugene Uber riders. University of Oregon undergraduates, who comprise about 80% of my ridership, have never been renowned on the whole for their intellectual prowess. While taking two of them to the movie theater to watch Interstellar for the third time, I overheard a sad struggle and ultimate failure to come up with the word "drone" ("it's the ... what do you call the fighter plane, except there's nobody in it? Anyway, they hack that at the beginning."). I don't think these young men suffered from Broca's aphasia, I just don't think they were very smart. As for the women, I've learned more about the lives of Oregon sorority girls than I care to. It's not what you think — no prurient details, no vicious nail-dragging down the backs of their sisters. Just the opposite. I've heard friends talk for a good minute (think how long that is in real time) about how someone had their bangs separated in a dumb-looking way poking out of their beanie yesterday. I've heard two separate sorority-girl pairs talk independently on different days about the same person, "Courtney," who fell at a party recently and now has "bruises, like, all over her body." The word "function" has taken on new significance as an apparent building-block of an entire group of people's lives. "The Theta Chi function on Friday" ... "Ew, no one has functions on Wednesdays" ... etc. It turns out to be the absence of really exciting details, coupled with the incredible ability to fill airspace with the most mundane observations that never stray outside their insubstantial little worlds, that's actually fascinating — if not a little disgusting — to listen to. They're not unlike the more oblivious set of long-distance hikers who get too ensconced in the subculture to be polite or relatable to real-world people.
But that's the bad. More often, there's the good — plenty of fine conversation partners, even among the UO undergrad crowd. Plenty of different languages (from international students), something that you simply do not get the chance to overhear otherwise in Eugene, a.k.a. the Whitest Town on the Planet. Thus far no drunks, no pukers (I don't drive late at night), none of Eugene's innumerable "transient population" (a smartphone and a checking account being necessities as an Uber rider). I did once have three incredibly stoned college guys, getting a 10-block ride to Pegasus Pizza, but that's harmless (and hilarious — String Cheese Incident "put it all out there for MLK's dream" at their show in Eugene on the 19th, apparently). I've given all of my riders five gold stars.
Given how undersocialized most of our worlds are, how all our interaction at the workplace always has to be directed towards some functional end, the chance to talk for 10 minutes or so with several new people a day — should the ride turn towards conversation — is nothing to sneeze at. It's one of my favorite things about hiking too, this chance to make new conversation only for the sake of conversation. You obviously have more time on the trail, to the point where, as I observed back on the PCT, you can feel like you know damn near everything about someone's life after being around them for a day or two. On the Uber rides, it's more like 10 minutes of small talk, and it's often with the same type of person (a wealthier-than-average University of Oregon student), but hey, it's different.
I'm quite enjoying it so far, and I plan to continue as long as Uber is legal in Eugene, although its days may be numbered. I haven't encountered any long-lost lovers yet, like Harry up at the top. I also don't get stoned NEARLY as often as him.