As I write this post, Accuweather tells me it is 92 degrees Fahrenheit (33 Celsius) on the street outside my house and adds that it actually feels like 100 (38C). It’s hot and muggy at 4 p.m.in downtown D.C! The streets of the capital are almost empty. If not for the frequent overflight of three Marine One presidential choppers, Washington might sound more like the capital of cicadas and fireflies. Not exactly a good time for Ubering.
And yet, some minor changes in Uber’s ride-sharing policy platform compelled me to get behind the wheel again and test them. Most of all, however, I was curious to take the post-summer pulse of the city I am learning to love. Before the summer break, I spent a few months crisscrossing the city, touching its unknown corners, curving into folds I did not know; I encountered people whose existence I would otherwise ignore because Uber driving is a lesson in life, regardless of how many continents one has traveled before. By now I have some favorite spots in the city, built by a French architect or military engineers, founded and populated by politicians, lobbyists, freemasons, and spies. Washington D.C., I discovered, has immensely rich areas, embedded within the vast, green lands of its outskirts. It also has plenty of racially segregated areas, where just the sight of a white man creates tension.
The other day, I picked up a couple of riders at Reagan National Airport and drove them along the Potomac as D.C.’s monuments blazed in the afternoon sunlight on the other side of the river. We crossed the river at Arlington Memorial Bridge, cut through Rock Creek Park and ended up in the upper part of Massachusetts Avenue, with its glamorous villas and embassies. It was an unintentional sightseeing tour, orchestrated by the algorithm of the navigation app I use. One could not miss the beauty and power of the moment! But the couple behind me did. They were evidently working, comparing notes on the people they had to meet later in the evening, preparing talking points, and never using any personal expressions but only the very abstract, coded language of billion-dollar trade deals, or arms sales, cybersecurity projects, or and board meetings. You never know; the language business people use is universal, conceived to make them sound savvy, and therefore it’s also generic. Totally uninteresting. My passengers, in their mid-forties, never lifted their heads from their cell phones to look at the beauty outside.
After I dropped them off at the Military Road near Chevy Chase Pavilion, I got a request for another drive. It came from around the corner, on Wisconsin Avenue, but with no indication or building number for the meeting point.”I am standing in front of the Cheesecake Factory,” the female rider told me over the phone as we tried to locate each other. When we finally met, I saw that she was on crutches, unable to step on her right foot, which she told me was operated on a few weeks earlier after a fall down the stairs. I don’t remember her name, because names in Uberland do not count for much. Most of the time customers use pseudonyms, and recently more and more people present themselves with one letter instead of a name. What counts are their stories. I helped my lady passenger into the car, making a few maneuvers to facilitate, but that would have cost me a ticket for a traffic infringement. We were driving south towards the river again, using almost the same route as when I was driving up to Military Road.
The passenger, who works at a law firm, was tired after just ending her first day of work after several weeks of postoperative rehabilitation. It was not her first drive in an Uber, but she didn’t recognize the route I took. Upon seeing it, she reminded me of a child, happy and daydreaming about that one day she will move closer to downtown. I drove her 20 miles, to Suitland, Maryland, just southeast of D.C.
Suitland is a hundred percent African American area, a ghetto that feels like being in a different country. It is not a slum but divided into communities with high rates of violence, crime, and drugs, my passenger told me. Coincidentally, the day after my first encounter with Suitland, I spent almost two hours driving around it, doing short trips for all kinds of people. I took all the calls, switching from one surprising human story to another in a matter of minutes. With every new passenger, my past and upbringing evolved into something new, from a perspective I hadn’t before experienced. I felt a kind of transformation, feeling almost ashamed and embarrassed about being a white man, of my inherent privilege in a country I am not even from.
I know that Uber didn’t plan for this kind of impact on its drivers. As I said at the beginning, the reason for setting out on the first Uber drive of Autumn was to get a sense of the algorithm changes the platform had introduced in my absence. But my reason for staying out was much more complex.
This new season, I had prepared for Uber driving by doing some reading to render me a more ”strategic” driver. I sped through the book Harry Campbell wrote for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing company drivers. It’s a manual of sorts, and a successful one among the genre for good reason. Uber’s platform has always been focused on riders, neglecting communication with drivers, and as Campbell started to drive for Uber and Lyft four years ago, he discovered and filled a gap with his publication, accompanied by a blog that is followed by ten thousands of fellow drivers.
The Rideshare Guide is written in a pragmatic way, with the intention of teaching the drivers how to position themselves and use tricks to earn more money. I realized that I had learned on my own almost all the things Campbell advises. Campbell suggests, for example, driving in the evenings and weekends when people are on outings and drinking.
I realized, though, that merely maximizing income is not my strategy…or what makes Uber interesting to me. Tipsy people are not at all the best story. And Campbell doesn’t focus on what I consider the most important traits for successful Ubering: learning from and communicating with diverse customers in sometimes unusual situations.
It’s the commuters, the window gazers, the families, and immigrants; the customers who take you to and tell you about a new part of your city; it’s the experience of briefly sharing a ride and destination.
As far as the recent increases of pay for drivers, and the company’s other cosmetic changes, they mean little. In D.C., Uber now pays drivers $0.91 per mile (previously $0.86), but generally, it is pointless to lose time trying to understand how much Uber really pays. Basically, in the gig economy, the one who pays pulls all the strings, and together with the minimum increase of drivers’ pay, Uber increased its booking and added some other incomprehensible charges that are near-impossible to challenge. As for some serious attempt to understand the costs and the income of an Uber driver, here is one of them.
The company is not hiding how big its cut of drivers’ earnings is, and it’s hard for drivers to get explanations. If it comes at all, it comes from overseas call centers, whose employees recite vague and abstract answers. As I wrote before, an Uber driver will never be able to speak to or meet an Uber spokesperson. You have to take it or leave it. I am taking it, and driving it, not only for my recreation and curiosity but for some human insight. The money I get in return is enough to cover my expenses. That will have to suffice.