If you haven't yet heard of Uber, the app which allows you to summon a driver basically at will and be taken anywhere you want to go at rates way cheaper than your local car/taxi service, you're living under a rock.
Being a resident of Hoboken, and hearing numerous folks tell me they would never take a taxi again, I decided to try it for myself at Newark airport... and boy was it awesome. Not only did a car show up at my terminal within three minutes of requesting one, as a first time "Uberer" I was given a $20.00 credit -- bringing my total charge for the trip to a whopping $11.00.
The difference was instantaneous:
Suddenly, because of this app, I not only knew the driver's name and he mine, I was able to see the make/model of the car and where he was at any given moment. Even receiving a text when he was about a minute away.
As an added bonus, the driver was nice, spoke English, didn't smell like expired yogurt, had a nice car, etc., but most of all, there was something personal about knowing each other's names, as if a friend was picking me up:
"David?" "Paul?" "How's it going tonight?" "Great. Thanks to you!"
Talking with him on the ride back, he seemed to be on laughing gas as he explained how great it was to be an "Ubertarian," taking on an almost Rev. Jim Jones-like tone.
According to Paul, drivers keep 80 percent of their fares, -- giving Uber 20 percent, Uber covers 20 percent of tolls, they could work whenever they want, and the work was virtually non-stop.
Upon exiting the vehicle, no money or tip was exchanged. Not even a form to sign. The service felt "free." And, on this first trip, it practically was. But that's how they get you. Like a free hit of heroin on your first try, or a puff off a crack pipe. As a rider, once you use Uber, odds are, you'll never go back to using anything else. Why would you?
I can't speak to your experiences, but in Hoboken, a city with as big of an on-street parking situation as Manhattan, 90 percent of the time when you call a cab they're either late, rude, don't speak English, take off after waiting only a minute or two or all of the above. So, who wouldn't welcome this type of service with open arms?
After taking a couple of rides, and talking with a few more drivers -- one guy told me he went from making between $80-100/day to around $200 for about half the hours worked -- I came to the conclusion that this type of job sounded too good be true. Thus, wanting to see, first-hand, what all the fuss was about I decided to drink the Kool-Aid and applied to become an Ubertarian, myself.
Going "undercover" to research this insanely popular company seemed quite interesting to me, as, while everyone's talking about Uber's dirty tactics against rival services, the legality of the app itself, as well as their routine use of surge pricing, no one's discussed what it's like to actually work for a company that's raking in $20 million dollars a week. Not to mention, since Dawson's Creek went off the air, my royalty checks have been less-than-stellar, so a few hundred bucks a week on my own schedule was fine by me.
Becoming an Uber driver is actually a piece of cake. They'll pretty much take anyone, as is demonstrated by the downloadable video test you have to pass, which is about as hard to master as tying your shoes. From there, as far as I can tell there's no license check; you simply get your vehicle's paperwork and head to a nearby Holiday Inn. Once arrived, you wait on a line that resembles something out of American Idol. Well, not that crazy, but you get the idea.
When you make it to the front, the cute 12-year-old girl running the show gives you your Uber'd-out iPhone 5 (don't get excited, it only works with the app) and then says, "Next?!" That's pretty much it. You're good to go.
Fast forward a few weeks into my research project, and I've come to the simple and obvious conclusion: If it sounds too good to be true, odds are it is. While Uber is undoubtedly great for users, at least in my experience, if you're a driver in the N.Y./N.J. area, it's an incredibly frustrating way of trying to earn a living. Here's why:
Too Many Drivers
For starters, Uber's popularity seems to increase tenfold with each passing week. Remember what I said about American Idol? Well, imagine if everyone who tried out for Idol got picked? That's how many drivers there are now in the Hoboken area. As well as Newark airport. The over-saturation resulting from dozens of drivers migrating here from as far away as Tom's River is immediately noticeable in the amount of down time you have on an hourly basis. One driver I spoke with had a great idea of how to fix this; Automatically eliminate any driver who averages below a 4.7 out of five-star rating. Not only would it give a company that pretty much accepts anyone a much needed colonic, it would allow the company to boast, "We only take the best drivers!" They currently have the rating system in place for just that reason but it's not being utilized as well as it could.
Given that Uber automatically gives the job to the driver closest to the pick-up spot, you would think there would be a simple way for drivers to see where other drivers are in relation to them on their Driver app, thereby allowing every driver in the area to pick a different part of town so as not to have everyone on top of each other in one area.
However, the rockets scientists at the home office neglected to design a feature that provides this much-needed assistance. Instead, if you want to see if you're in a crowded zone, you have to use Uber on your personal phone, and from there, you can view where other drivers are located. Seriously?
At the airport it's like a game of roulette; you constantly circle the terminals, hoping when the call comes, your timing is right and "Bam!," your phone buzzes. If another driver is literally ten feet closer to the terminal than you, he gets the gig. As a result, you spend most of the day checking both your phones and trying to play Pole Position. It's ridiculous.
Uber's "Heat Map" is a way the driver app shows you which areas are the busiest; i.e. Hoboken, Weehawken, Jersey City, etc.. This tool is supposed to assist drivers with getting more pick-ups. However, in the weeks I've been driving, the heat map has never showed any busy areas in the entire state.
The only thing you ever see are heat alerts in Manhattan. And since you need a TLC permit and commercial insurance to drive in New York, it's a completely useless -- and quite annoying feature. What driver sitting on his butt half the afternoon in Hoboken wants to constantly glance at his map and see that drivers in N.Y.C. are raking it in? Ridiculous.
Dangerous to Use While Driving
Obviously using one phone while driving is not the greatest idea, but having to switch between two phones is not only a major pain in the ass, it's also dangerous. Sure, you can pull over, but there are times when you're in an area that requires you to keep moving, so you find yourself looking down as to where to go next while the mother with the stroller pops out from behind a carpet cleaning van parked too close to the intersection.
Riding around trying to locate your pick-up on a tiny GPS target -- especially on a call where the address can be anywhere in three square blocks, is another obviously nerve-wracking maneuver.
One of the things I experienced, especially during late weekend nights, is for a rider to get in my car and tell me they were approached by other Uber drivers who would see them waiting on a corner, pull up alongside them, and say "Uber?" When the riders got in, the driver didn't know their name so they got out. This happened multiple times in one night where drivers looking to steal fares would circle the busy parts of town looking to poach the "hired" driver's clients. This could also turn out to be a dangerous thing for women, as all some nutjob has to do now is pull up to some girl waiting alone and say "Uber?" 9 out of 10 times the client gets in before you say their name.
In Hoboken alone, the cab companies have been crying to city hall about Uber drivers stealing all their business. Personally, I believe it's survival of the fittest and if your business model is to treat customers like shit and operate with a 'take it or leave it' attitude, eventually, someone will build a better mousetrap and that will be that. However, most municipalities don't share that viewpoint, and in Hoboken, cops have been out in force issuing tickets to Uber drivers dropping passengers off at the Path station. It's up to you, alone, to cover/fight these tickets.
Let's cut to the chase; the simple reason I believe it's ultimately not worth driving for Uber is the money. There's no denying it's great for customers. But, if you're a driver in the Hoboken area, good luck paying your overinflated rent with this gig.
It's incredibly infuriating to spend an hour or more taking a rider from Newark to the bowels of Brooklyn and see the fare was only $68 dollars. Especially when simply crossing into Manhattan is a flat fee of $65 dollars.
Surely, taking an extra 40 minutes to traverse the Manhattan Bridge, onward through the fifty traffic lights on Flatbush Ave, passing Grand Army Plaza, and continuing on a mile after that, is worth more than $3 bucks? Not to Uber.
Another example is the low $20 surcharge to Manhattan. Not nearly enough. I took several riders from Hoboken/Jersey City into midtown and the fare came to $36. Again, considering it could cost upwards of $75-$80, great for the customer. But, after you deduct your 80 percent of the $13 toll, that leaves you with 80 percent of $25. Which, without factoring in gas, comes to about $16. And, let's not forget the most important part; now that you're in Manhattan, you have to get back. This act, alone, could easily take you another hour. So, if your trip in and out of Manhattan took anywhere near two hours, you've earned approx. $8/hr.
What Uber needs to do to keep this a viable business model for drivers in the metropolitan area, is raise the surcharge for trips into/out of Manhattan -- as well as rush hour trips out of Hoboken to places west.
Case in point, I picked up a rider the other day at 8a.m. in Hoboken going to Secaucus. Only about five miles away. However, because of all the incoming tunnel traffic in the morning, it literally took a half an hour just to leave town. Then, on the way back, you're stuck in the Manhattan commute with the rest of New Jersey. Another 45 minutes all for an $18 trip.
One driver I spoke with suggested that Uber should allow drivers who make rush hour trips --morning or evening -- into the five boroughs to keep 90 percent of the fare. I would go a step further and say, considering they're taking in $20 million a week, they should cover all N.J. driver's river-crossing tolls.
These solutions may not be Uber-perfect, but they would definitely make it more of a sustainable job for a driver than the current situation. Uber needs to treat the N.Y./N.J. area as a separate beast, different from 95 percent of all other cities, otherwise, once the high wears off, they'll find themselves with a massive driver exodus. And we all know what a shortage of drivers means for riders. $500 to J.F.K. anyone?