Since debuting in 2012, rideshare services Uber and Lyft have nearly obliterated demand for Los Angeles taxis. Cab drivers who once took home $800 a week are now making half that amount. Still, there's little sympathy. Taxis are too expensive, their drivers too rude, their cars too smelly, their arrival too unreliable. "Adapt or die," passengers say.
I was chief among them. I recently spent two years here without a car, during which I relied on two or three rideshares a day. It's easy to see the appeal of Uber and Lyft, which provide a comfortable, friendly and — most importantly— inexpensive ride. A mid-afternoon Uber Pool from Silver Lake to my ex's place in Westchester took a quarter of the time of public transit and cost a third of a taxi fare. As a passenger, I enjoyed talking with drivers and relished saving money on car payments, gas and insurance. I often said that if I owned a car, I'd definitely be an Uber driver because it seemed like so much fun.
That is, until I actually tried it.
A freelance writer and copy editor, I found myself unexpectedly short of work earlier this year. One day, on a ride from L.A. to Long Beach, as I listened to my driver proudly claim that he regularly earned $4,000 to $6,000 a month (he was not the first to say this), I decided that I, too, would be a rideshare driver as I figured out my next career move.
I financed a sky-blue Hyundai. I signed up as an Uber driver first, and added Lyft later. I scoured The Rideshare Guy blog for tips and tricks. I bought phone chargers and auxiliary cables — all the things I'd appreciated as a passenger.
Yet, after just a few days on the road, I was baffled by how exactly drivers could be clearing a cool grand a week. On my third day behind the wheel, I sat in the car for 11 hours, drove for seven of them, and grossed $118 before deducting the cost of gas, wear and tear, rideshare insurance and income tax.
And it was hardly stress free. Set up to be the antithesis of traditional cab companies, Uber and Lyft prompt passengers to rate their drivers. When a driver's average rating falls below 4.6 out of 5 stars, they risk account deactivation (the rules about which have only recently been outlined). These ratings are meted out by passengers who can deduct stars for factors fully outside a driver's control or for rookie errors.
In one of my earliest days of driving, I picked up the first of what was supposed to be three passengers headed to LAX. Despite the early hour, passenger one was chatty as we made our way to passenger two in Mid-City. Our wires crossed when I misinterpreted the second man's request to put in a new address as the desire to start a new ride. My profuse apologies were met with heavy sighs and eye rolls. Not wanting to pony up for a 1.2x price surge that'd just gone into effect, both men left in a huff, slamming the car doors and the trunk, and giving me a poor rating.
More recently, a Lyft Line passenger got in and immediately grilled me on why I hadn't picked up our other passengers first. "You drove right past them," she exclaimed, showing me their location on her phone. I calmly explained that Lyft's driver-facing app directs me to pick up passengers in the order their requests come in; I don't learn the location of the second passenger until I've picked up the first. I had no way to know I'd driven past them. She too ended her ride with an aggressive door slam and a low rating.
Earlier this year, both Uber and Lyft slashed nationwide fares by 20%. In Los Angeles, the per-mile cost for Uber is now $.90, Lyft a mere $.88. The price war is a boon for passengers, but a bear for drivers, especially on Uber's platform, where there's no in-app tipping. In the absence of decent pay, both companies have begun using monetary incentives to get drivers on the road, but it feels more like a gamble than reward. A recent Uber promotion promised an extra $300 to drivers who completed 75 rides within a week — an easy goal for a full-time driver at first blush. The fine print, however, stipulated that only rides originating in "core L.A." counted toward the incentive. This area does not extend to or past Studio City, Burbank, Glendale, Alhambra, Inglewood, Malibu or the South Bay — all popular rideshare destinations.
Maddeningly, I don't know where passengers are headed until they get in my car. Three times in one particularly disheartening day I had to dead-head back (that is, drive without a passenger) to the basin after long Uber fares landed me in Pacoima, then Anaheim, then Van Nuys — all outside "core L.A." I could have waited in those areas to pick up rides, but none would have counted toward my $300 incentive.
Two years ago rideshare companies claimed that drivers were making $90,000 a year in New York City, and $74,000 in San Francisco. Now they say driving was never meant to be a full-time job. Indeed, most drive now for supplemental income. So Uber and Lyft decimated the market share of traditional taxis on the backs of part-time contractors — and spend millions on lawyers and political lobbyists to keep operating that way.
I had the Uber emblem on my car for only a few days before sensing that the situation wasn't right. I still drive part-time for Lyft because it allows tipping and has easier weekly incentives. I'm grateful for the income, but know that as soon as I can, I'll join the half of rideshare drivers who quit within a year and go back to being a passenger — one who no longer complains about an $18 fare to get across town.
Sandra Vahtel is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a 4.99 Lyft driver rating.
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