Three years ago, headed down to the studios of radio station KGO to guest host on a Saturday afternoon, I had grown weary of giving up my prime parking space in the Lower Haight and worrying I would be ticketed for overstaying my welcome at a meter while on the air. That was the first time I hopped into an Uber, and I was smitten. Using only my iPhone and my American Express card, a driver named Pete swooped by the front of our apartment building. “Susan?” he asked from his sparkling new Toyota Prius. “Yes,” I replied, studying him carefully. “Pete, right?” He nodded, and off we went.
Scooting silently along city streets, I asked Pete how he liked being a driver for Uber. “I love it,” he said. “I make my own hours, the money’s great, and they paid me a $5,000 bonus just for signing up.” Pete, like many early Uber drivers, was a former cabbie, and he told me horror stories about paying lofty gate fees to get the best fares. “If you want to go to the airport, you have to pay up,” he said indignantly. I asked him if there was a down side to Uber. “I can’t think of any,” he said. “I had to buy this car and I pay for my insurance, but I make so much money that it more than covers my expenses.”
Like Pete, I couldn’t see any down side to Uber. Each weekend I would tap the app and watch as a cartoon car wriggled through the cartoon streets showing me exactly where my ride was. “You’re driver is arriving now,” Uber would cheerfully point out just as they pulled up. I had the auto make, model, and license number along with the driver’s name, passenger reviews, and photo. Unlike cab companies, there was no waiting for rides that never show up; no attitude from the drivers; no messing with cash and tips — there was an app for all that.
Then I had my first bad Uber experience. A young man picked me up, and he didn’t seem to know the city at all. As he fumbled with his phone, I told him that on weekends it was best to avoid downtown. He went downtown anyway, which was worse than usual due to a protest clogging the main thoroughfares. “I go on the air at 4,” I reminded him some 45 minutes into the ride. We ended up by the Embarcadero at 3:45, where a cop flagged us down. “Where are you headed?” he asked. I explained, and he shook his head. “You’re not going to make it. I’d get out and walk if I were you.” I got out and ran, stumbling into the studio just in time to do crosstalk with Michael Finney, sweating and gasping for air. I gave my driver a harsh one-star review, and Uber refunded my money.
Undeterred, I hailed an Uber the following weekend and a message popped up: “Surge Pricing is in effect.” Due to high demand, Uber had to charge me three times the minimum fare. I was running late, so I grudgingly accepted their terms. I asked my driver how she felt about surge pricing. “I hate it,” she said. “The passengers yell at me about it, and Uber makes more money but I don’t make surge-priced tips.” A little bit of hate began seeping into my honeymoon with Uber, and according to my informal poll, drivers were feeling the same way. “How do you like driving for Uber?” I would ask. The drivers would pause, crinkle their noses, and say, “It’s O.K.”
“There aren’t enough fares,” one middle-aged man complained. “I gave up driving a taxi for this. I bought this car. Now I have to work 14 hours a day just to pay my bills.” I asked him what had changed. “They’re hiring too many drivers,” he said. “They say they’ll give me a bonus if I recruit people — why would I do that? I already don’t have enough fares.” As the drivers became more disenchanted, the number of inexperienced drivers increased. Many of them had never driven professionally; some didn’t live in San Francisco, and had no idea how to navigate urban traffic. “I come up from Monterey on the weekends,” one guy told me as he passed my destination twice. Uber rival Lyft also stepped up its game, and pretty soon the streets were blanketed with people driving their own jalopies emblazoned with fuzzy pink moustaches. The Uber app began to look like sharks cruising for chum as cartoon cars nearly bumped into each other seeking fares. One rainy day, a novice driver with a brand-new vehicle got into a minor accident before I could even buckle my seatbelt.
As competition for drivers hit a fevered pitch, Uber continued to lower its standards. Drivers became less competent, and some were downright dangerous. Stories circulated about sexual assaults on drunken female passengers; one driver hit and killed a child on New Year’s Eve; another driver beat his male customer with a hammer. All of this prompted legislators to question Uber’s background checks. “Are you fingerprinted?” I asked a former cabbie named Bob. “I was because I drive for UberBlack,” he said. UberBlack is the company’s high-end platform. “What about the people driving the lower-end UberX?” I asked. Bob shook his head. “Hell, no.” He said that unlike cab companies, Uber’s background check is little more than a quick questionnaire. “You don’t even meet anybody at Uber. I know guys who signed up and they’re picking up passengers the next day.”
Just when I was thinking of kicking Uber to the curb, they added UberPool, allowing passengers to share rides with strangers anywhere in San Francisco for seven bucks. Often I was the only person in the car. I didn’t care if Uber was losing money — with a $63 billion valuation, the tech company was the poster colt for unicorns — but the drivers were losing money, too. “They take 30 percent from the $7 you paid,” one woman told me. “Some days if I only get UberPools I make like $20.”
It remains to be seen what will happen to Uber when it becomes a public company. Right now it’s blowing through venture capital, with financial statements leaked to the website Gawker showing they lost $110 million in the second quarter of 2014 alone. That won’t cut it when shareholders are pounding the table for profits. It also remains to be seen what will happen to Uber’s drivers, many already living fare to fare as they struggle for survival in the gig economy. I’d bet a unicorn that once Uber is pressured to produce, the love/hate relationship with its drivers will continue speeding precipitously downhill.