Five months doesn't sound like a long time to be driving for Lyft, but it's a lot longer than many of the drivers I talk to. I have driven my Toyota Camry for Lyft since October, but I'm a two-timer: I've also been driving for Uber since December. This article is my attempt to document what they are like, from the inside out, in the hopes of helping new drivers like myself decide which company fits them best.
I didn't usually have a daily routine for these jobs. One day I might drive in the morning, while working a different project in the evening. Other days I might work somewhere in both the morning and afternoon and slip in an hour of Lyft or Uber somewhere in the middle. Other days, I might work late at night, from 8 p.m. to 2.a.m.
In my experience talking to other drivers, everyone drives for their own reason. For job-hopping freelancers like me, making my own hours with Uber and Lyft is perfect. For other drivers, it's about getting a piece of a new market. Still others are trying to escape from a traditional taxi shift.
The week starts in earnest when I get the "Weekend Ahead" UberX email each Friday. This email is surprisingly motivating. In addition to "pro tips" about how to maximize our driving experience, the company gives us weather reports for the next few days and tells us the big events that we'll want to drive near if we want quick and lucrative pickups. It's a tacit reminder that I have at my fingertips the ability to make several hundred dollars over the weekend, on my own time, in my own whip. Without a deadline. Without a boss. Without meetings. Without performance reviews. The feeling of freedom is empowering. That email makes it feel like I don’t truly answer to anyone but me.
The feeling isn't uncommon. “The only thing that really kept me from going out on my own earlier was the fact that no health care company would give me insurance," said Diana, a Lyft driver for more than six months. "Now that Obamacare provides that, I have the freedom to find my own jobs and just do the medical care myself. Now I rent out a second bedroom to people on Airbnb. I support myself.” She, like everyone else I talked to, preferred not to give her full name for this story.
George and Ian are UberX drivers and, like many others, are refugees from the taxi world. George says he doesn't miss the difficulty in scheduling himself to drive someone else’s cab. He also had problems with dispatchers. He says he was often sent to passengers who had already been picked up.
Ian has been driving UberX for more than a year now and has time to do some freelance graphic design work on the side.
“It’s been wonderful," he says. "Five to six hours a day is terrific. If I’m busy in the mornings I drive in the evenings. I drove a cab before. What made me switch was many things. A cleaner car. I don’t have to pay the gates."
Then there's the gas. Traditional taxi drivers often have to pay for their own gas at the end of their shifts, which would eat into their profits.
"Before you would get out from the yard, literally I’m in the hole with like $140," Ian says. "And then, after $140 that’s where I made my money. So if I didn’t make more than that then I ended up owing money. Uber is much better. I don’t have to carry cash and I get paid every Thursday. My dream was to have my own taxi but Uber answered my dream by coming up with UberX.”
Uber started its "ridesharing option" UberX about a year ago, invading a segment of the market already inhabited by Sidecar and Lyft. From a functionality standpoint, there's not too much that's different about these three offerings. They involve an app that provides a way for folks who have a car to give rides to folks who need to get someplace, without money physically changing hands. There are however differences in driver/rider expectations, pay, and some other details.
Love it or hate it, one of the most well-known images associated with Lyft is its neon pink mustache. We're talking about a plush, furry, three-foot-long tube of stuffing which must be visible to the passenger you are picking up. It's supposed to be the company's calling card, but drivers tend to hate it.
Rumor has it, one should never let the mustache sit on the driver side—or even the middle—of your dashboard. That would qualify it as an obstruction, earning you a moving violation. When I first started, fellow drivers told me that police had stopped Lyft drivers for that. If you dropped someone off at the airport, I had been told you should take it down from your dashboard then as well. You wouldn’t want the police to see you picking someone up there when Lyft didn’t have an official agreement with the airport.
Lyft technically wants drivers to put the mustache on the grill in front of your car, not the dashboard. I just didn’t feel right doing that, considering tales of how it falls off when you go too fast or starts to heat up because of proximity to the engine. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to have a pink light on the dash or something?” I thought to myself.
“They don’t force you to (put it on the grill) to be honest,” a driver named Johnny said when I discussed this with him. “It’s preferred outside but because of the safety issues, the cleanliness of it, the safety of yourself and your passengers, I actually refuse to put it outside. I keep it inside. As long as you can see it and people know that I am the vehicle, then it’s totally fine.”
Then of course there’s the way that the pink mustache makes you stick out like a sore thumb. The taxi and Uber ruffians saw me every time. I had been cut off, yelled at, or honked at many times in my first two months and still sometimes to this day.
“My first week in working for Lyft I was in the Castro and a yellow cab had honked at me and yelled at me for being in the area,” Johnny said. “I had no idea what that was about because I was following the traffic and waiting patiently for a light. When the mustache is visible is when the anger starts to come through. Once I had an incident where three Uber drivers were around me and I was cut short. I was tailgated and closed off from (making) a light. That’s when I knew it probably wasn't safe to keep it on the outside.”
Despite all that, my main reason for leaving Lyft was my own personal preference. Both Lyft and competitor Sidecar are vying to be an Etsy-like alternative to Uber’s Amazon. They are both in several cities, but aren’t the globe-straddling Goliath that Uber is. Uber seemed to be a bit more organized and established.
Lyft is known for its emphasis on community, and that works for some. “We make friends with each other,” said Johnny, who is still happily driving for Lyft. “I make about 2-5 friends a week with Lyft. I keep a notebook. I tell people about my lifestyle, dietary changes, workouts, and I’ve never been happy or healthier in years.”
The community thing sounds great, and I liked it at first, but it began to wear on me personally. As more of an introvert, I needed more distance than what I felt able to achieve at Lyft. If I had already worked in the morning at a different project, I had a tough time being extroverted for passengers in the afternoon or evening. I had been told by friends working for Uber that passengers there often didn’t feel like speaking with the driver, so I wouldn't feel as obligated to be social at all times.
Then of course there was the money. UberX offered “surge pricing,” which Lyft and Sidecar didn't have at that point. By switching over to Uber, I could take advantage of busy Friday and Saturday nights as well as morning and evening commute hours in order to double or even triple what I might get paid at Lyft. I made the switch. New Year's came around and I made a killing. As a Lyft driver who made the transition, I was awarded $500 after I completed my 20th ride for UberX.
Later on I heard that Sidecar was offering new drivers cash awards for switching over too. One driver told me Sidecar is currently offering $25 after your first 25 rides, $50 after your first 50, and a $250 cash bonus after your first 100 rides.
“The way I see it, you really don’t know exactly what all these companies will look like a few months from now much less a year from now,” says Diana the Lyft driver, who recently started driving for Uber as well.
“They’re trying to keep up with each other with new features," she says. "It’s only been like a month since Lyft started giving drivers big tips during peak hours, so I actually try to use both programs on the same nights. It sounds crazy but I switch back and forth. Why not? Whatever makes me the most money. People think Uber gives the biggest tips because ‘surge pricing’ is such a famous idea, but now Lyft is throwing (it back) at them. So I’m taking advantage of it.”
As for myself, I'm sticking with Uber for now, at least most of the time. Will I hang up my pink mustache anytime soon? Not likely. I'll always be trying to keep up with the latest news about each company to see how drivers are paid. The rideshare war has only just begun.
[Image: Flickr user vk1962]