What I learned from 100 Uber rides

About 18 months ago, my boss issued an instruction to all staff: for regular travel to client meetings, work functions and so forth, he wanted us to use Uber-X. His reason was simple; it’s cheaper than using taxis.

The biggest taxi user in the office is me; my job requires me to shuttle around Sydney to meet clients on a daily basis. I hadn’t tried Uber before, but I was happy to comply. And I quickly became oddly fixated on it. Yes, it was saving us a few bob. And yes, it was a novelty. But it also gave me a new mini hobby: talking to Uber drivers.

I made a decision before that first Uber ride, that I would talk to every driver who picked me up. I have now taken about 100 Uber rides in the last year and a half. I have only broken my “talk to every driver rule” twice. Once when a driver and his car smelt so terribly that the olfactory assault of it all shocked me into stunned silence. And once more when a driver’s inability to follow his own GPS system, made him take a wrong turn, and head to the other end of the Harbour Bridge from where my meeting was at, making me embarrassingly late and leaving us sitting in awkward silence with each other.

I had no strong reason for wanting to talk to Uber drivers, other than to discover what (ahem) drove them to take it up in first place. Was there also part of me which wanted to democratise the whole process? Did I not want to feel like I was participating in a sort of 21st century servitude? I don’t know. But I can report back on what I’ve found after slightly fewer than 100 conversations with Uber drivers.

I always start off by asking how long they’ve been an Uber driver. There is a genuinely wide response here, but I think within that range there are two clusters; people who have been doing it for less than 3 months and people who have been doing it for over 2 years. The newbies and the veterans. Interestingly, the veterans aren’t necessarily jaded and the newbies aren’t necessarily in love with it all. Why there’s not as many people in the middle of the range, I don’t know.

But nearly all of them are men. In 18 months I’ve had two female Uber drivers. One, a cheery middle aged woman in an SUV who had started driving that day (“you’re my third passenger!” she beamed) and one rock chick with purple hair and a silver floor matted hoon mobile. She advised me to correct my pick up address if the app had got it wrong, which it frequently does. This was after she gently scolded me for not being where the pin said I was.

She gave an interesting response to another question I often ask, about whether or not it’s a lucrative exercise for them. Her system, she told me, was to drive each day for as long as it took her to meet her self-imposed sales target. Then she went home. Having such as system is rare amongst my informal sample. But the general consensus on it being a money making exercise seems to be that to make good money, you have to drive a lot of hours, capitalise on the surge pricing and drive on Friday and Saturday nights, thus running the risk of drunken revellers vomiting in your mobile workplace.

When asked what they like about Uber driving, there’s one thing I heard over and over again: flexibility. Flexibility is something I take for granted in my working life. Whether it be through understanding employers or a blundering habit of mine to do my own thing without asking, it’s something I’ve always felt I had and naively, I get slightly confused when I hear others longing for flexibility around hours worked, time off and so on. But time and again I’ve heard Uber drivers nominate that as it’s number one benefit. I work when I like. I’m my own boss.

If I’m being judgemental, some of these blokes (as they almost overwhelmingly are) don’t seem like the sorts who would be happy working for a boss anyway. There’s a notable subset of people who quit their last job because, “the boss was an idiot” or something similar. There’s a definite streak of anti-authoritarianism. Many are between jobs; the one who sold his café and looks for a site for his next business as he drives around, the 63 year old laid off last year who’s doing this while waiting for job interviews and – worryingly – the management consultant who takes it up during the inevitably quiet months of December and January.

Others have something else on the go. They’ve got a business on the side, there’s a project they’re working on, they work another job at night. Entrepreneurship can do with some regular income coming in. Some have grander plans; like the one who plans to use Uber to fund the purchase of a second car, which he’ll then lease out to other Uber drivers to raise money for a third car, and so on until he has a fleet of five and he’s given up driving, and living of the lease income.

Many are students; the engineering student who wants to work on cars, but can’t see the prospect of any jobs in Australia, the communications student selling health food parcels as well (“here, take my card”), the Iranian migrant earning money to complete his course in aviation.

Some gripe about Uber, but not many. Some gripe about riders, but not many. Some talk of the inevitable conflict with taxi drivers, of being abused as allegedly happened to one in Wollongong this week. Many are taxi drivers who having failed to beat ‘em, have joined ‘em. (These are the least talkative but the strongest on navigation, the perennial weak spot of Uber drivers, despite GPS assistance.)

And all the time, I’m thinking about the good and bad of all this. The freedom and flexibility of it, versus the lack of workplace conditions, seemingly left behind without a thought. In this post, futurist Sam Sammartino says we should all be giving up our fixation with jobs anyway, thinking about how we can use our own assets and skills to generate the revenue we need and want, taking charge of our own destiny. I think that’s hugely problematic, but his call is part of ongoing national crush on entrepreneurship. Through this lens, being an Uber driver is the opposite of servitude; it’s picking yourself up by the bootstraps and having a flamin’ go.

I wouldn’t discount this view out altogether, but it neglects that at the end of all of this homespun entrepreneurialism, there’s a multinational corporation taking 25% of every drive, not paying for leave or insurance and waiting to replace the whole system with driverless cars. Can something be entrepreneurial on a personal level for its participants, while being an exploitative business with lowly paid suppliers at heart?

My one-hundredth Uber ride was to Melbourne airport with a man from Pakistan, and if he felt exploited, he didn’t show it through his cheery demeanour. I asked all my questions and got my standard responses. Then the subject turned to Australia and he said he had come here by boat. From Pakistan to Malaysia to Indonesia to Christmas Island. From there to months in a detention centre in Weipa. And finally on to Melbourne where no job awaited, but where he could drive an Uber and work on his citizenship application. Enterprise. Entrepreneurship. Courage. Tenacity.

“Thing is,” he says, “when Chinese people get out at the airport. They don’t know how to call a cab. But they can work Uber. Uber is everywhere.” He’s got that right.