The Uber attraction – part 1

Sharing rides and life in the gig economy – by Mike Joslin

On the way to the Miami airport last month, my eyes landed on a scene that is fast on its way to becoming the norm — vast parking areas packed with idled taxis. The reason? Uber, of course. Uber and other ride-sharing companies are quickly pushing today’s taxi business to the edge of obsolescence.

Why Uber

Most people can recount their first Uber ride and what motivated them to give it a try. I sure can. About two years ago, I flew to La Jolla, California on business. Not really wanting to rent a car for the few days I’d be there, I checked the cost of one-way shuttles and taxis to get to the hotel from the San Diego airport. Both came in at a whopping $110 — one-way.

Goodbye Yellow Cab. Hello Uber. That $200-plus fare was all it took for me to reach for my phone and pull up Uber.

Their estimate? A much easier-to-swallow fare of about $65 each way (before my $20 rookie credit). With a $70 savings, I was in. Ready to ditch the taxi and try something new, I loaded the Uber app, watched a few instructional YouTube videos and hoped I was ready to make my inaugural trip.

My first ride

I admit to some apprehension. This was new, after all. My kids and countless others had used Uber, but not me. I didn’t know the steps to this particular dance. However, my fears were groundless. The ride went off without a hitch, with nary a misstep or stumble. And it created a lasting impression. For one thing, the car was stunningly clean — no candy wrappers, empty Coke cans, petrified French fries or general grime. It was spotless. And the driver was very friendly — he greeted me with smile and even a cold bottle of water. The ride also came in right around the price quoted, so any worries about a bait-and-switch con with an unrealistically low fare were laid to rest.

As I was dropped off at the hotel, I felt a surge of satisfaction. Success! I had made my first contribution to this new ‘gig economy.’

What I learned about Uber drivers

Since that first ride, I’ve probably taken 75–100 rides for business and with family and friends. On just about every trip, I’ve sat in the front seat and enjoyed fantastic conversations with the drivers, learning about their life histories and experience with Uber. Almost all have been more than willing to open up and chat. From my rides and the now-standard questions I pose to all drivers, consistent themes have emerged.

· Clean cars

Unlike the majority of the taxis I’ve taken over the years, every driver’s car was over-the-top clean. I guess when it’s your vehicle and your source of income, you’re going to take care of it.

· A side job

With a handful of exceptions, Uber was either a second job or a way to make some money on the side, or while in school. It appears few people intend their Uber gigs to become their primary career.

· Flexible hours

Drivers really enjoy being able to decide if or when to work. With no set hours, they simply signal their availability to Uber and they’re ready to start picking up fares.

· Independent

With only one exception, all preferred to be independent, self-employed contractors. While this might sound controversial given many of the articles you can find to the contrary, I’m just reporting what I was told when I asked. The responses were very consistent. The Uber drivers I talked to also said they didn’t want Uber to provide retirement or health care benefits. The reason? All said this would probably result in a lower payout to them as well as a higher cost to their passengers, which would give them less of a pricing edge over taxis. (With recent legal challenges to independent contractor status and unionization efforts, this aspect of the Uber business model will be particularly interesting to follow.)

Overall, my experience with Uber has been overwhelmingly positive. When traveling, it’s the go-to-ride for me and my family.

Beyond convenience and cost, the real draw to Uber — at least for me — is the people who drive the cars. From college students to single moms, retired folk to immigrants, I have delighted in the conversations we have shared. Surprisingly open, my Uber drivers have freely shared their personal stories and in doing so provided a compelling glimpse of Main Street America. Hard-working. Creative. Willing to try new things in an ever-changing world.

Works for me.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I delve a bit more into the lives of Uber drivers, as shared with me .


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