I was never all that good at math, so it took me a while to figure out that it would be cheaper to take a cab to Logan Airport in Boston for the LA Auto Show than it would to park there for four days. Our parent company — Gatehouse Media — has an account with Uber, so I decided to give that one a shot. It was an interesting experience.
For the traveler, it’s a great option, provided that there are cars available. From my office in Needham, Massachusetts, Uber sent a car to my office door in about five minutes. Needham is a busy town, but it’s not Boston, so I figured my wait was going to be double that.
My ride was a Mini Countryman, smaller than the Crown Vic you’d get if you called a cab company, but for me, the driver and my luggage, it was perfect. The car was a hell of a lot cleaner than any Yellow Cab I’d ever been in, too. It didn’t stink, and the driver wasn’t yelling into his cell phone in his native tongue, which was a significant upgrade from every cab I’ve ever been in.
Over the course of four days, I got at least six Uber rides. They were all uniformly good. The drivers ranged from chatty to not, but all of them were professional.
I asked every single driver about his experience with the company. Their responses were uniform, too:
Yesterday, Quartz posted a first-person story from an Uber driver and you can get a different perspective on exactly the same story there.
I learned a lot about how Uber pays drivers, and in a lot of cases, it appears as if they’ve got their drivers over a barrel. First off, Uber skims 20 percent off the top of any fare, which, honestly seems fair enough to me for the back-end work that the company does on behalf of drivers.
Or, at least it would be fair if that’s where the payments stop.
$1 of your tab to Uber is called a “Safe Rides Fee,” which Uber describes as a small fee added to uberX fares on behalf of drivers in cities with uberX ridesharing. This Safe Rides Fee supports continued efforts to ensure the safest possible platform for Uber riders and drivers, including a Federal, state, and local background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education, development of safety features in the app, and more. For complete pricing transparency, you’ll see this as a separate line item on every uberX receipt.”
The buck goes directly to Uber, not the driver, and it’s a buck whether the ride total is $5.40 or $70.
Next, is the phone. One of the drivers told me that in his earliest days with Uber, the company provided the phone that the drivers used to operate their business. Now — according to one driver — the iPhone comes with a $40 per month bill.
Everything else is the responsibility of the driver. Car maintenance, insurance, gas, etc. is all his responsibility.
Finally, and kind of frustratingly for both me and the driver, was the tip function. There isn’t one with Uber. The company website notes “Being Uber means there is no need to tip drivers with any of our services.” I don’t know about “being Uber,” but I do know about not being a jerk. I take Vinnie Antonelli’s advice when tipping is concerned:
The idea that somebody’s going to pick me up in their car, drive me around and unload my bags from the trunk without a tip seems preposterous to me.
Lyft doesn’t want drivers dealing with cash tips, either. It’s ostensibly a safety thing, but I’m not so sure about that. Whatever the reason, Lyft DOES allow you to tip a driver within the confines of the app. My suspicion is that they’re less concerned about the driver’s safety with cash or the idea that “drivers focus on interacting with the passenger, not a financial transaction” when they don’t have to make change. I think they just like to hold onto some money for a little while. Regardless, at least the option is there.
Finally, there’s a rating system where you provide a star rating within the app. Oddly, you’re not rating the driver, you’re rating the service as a whole, but I just spent 25 minutes riding around with a guy I liked, who treated me nicely and got me safely to my destination. I don’t care about Uber at that point. I care about the driver, and if I bother to give him a five star rating, I certainly hope he gets credit for it.
Apparently, he does not. It’s not a bonus system where five-star drivers get to keep more of the money they earned. My kids in public school in Massachusetts take the MCAS tests every year. As parents, we’re told that the grade isn’t really about our kids, it’s about the quality of the education. I think that’s just as dumb.
The biggest problem for drivers now is that there are just too many of them. In places like Los Angeles, Uber went on a hiring spree, knowing that a certain percentage of drivers would bail out at some point, and some would have to be fired eventually. But there’s no disadvantage to Uber having more drivers. It’s a big disadvantage for the drivers themselves, who are not only competing with cars and other services like Lyft: they’re competing with each other, which seems like a recipe for disaster at some point.
In summation, I had a great experience with Uber as a traveler. I had a not-so-great experience with Uber as a guy who likes to see people get paid fairly for the work they do.