Friday December 14, 2018
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Tim VanDongen leans on his car

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ann Arbor through the eyes of drivers for Uber and Lyft.

by Patrick Dunn

From the April, 2018 issue

Ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft have become wildly popular since they debuted in Ann Arbor almost four years ago. But Uber's business practices have sparked controversy, and the folks who do the driving are often left out of the discussion. We asked five of them to tell us about their time behind the wheel:

Chris Iskra says he switched from Amazing Blue Taxi to Uber in 2014 after deciding that the app was going to "take over." He continues to drive for Uber and Lyft.

Jesse Miller works full-time, but drove for Uber from 2015 to 2016 to make extra cash to cover the costs of his son's day care.

David Shtulman started driving for Lyft last year to keep busy after retiring as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor.

Tim VanDongen quit his job as a general manager at Panera in 2014 to drive for Uber and start a short-lived business that placed advertising displays in Uber cars. He now works for Durham School Services, the company that operates Ann Arbor's school buses, but still drives for Uber occasionally.

Beth Weiler drove for Uber for ten months in 2015 and 2016 to raise money for a gap year abroad after her graduation from U-M.

Though all five have ridesharing apps in common, the experiences they had and their overall appraisals of their employers vary considerably. Here are their stories:

A Night in the Life

A "day in the life" of an Ann Arbor Uber or Lyft driver can be a misnomer; a night in the life is far more typical. Drivers can work whenever they want to, but Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from eight p.m. to three the next morning are by far the most lucrative times. As hundreds of partiers shuttle between bars and other nightlife destinations, Uber and Lyft impose "surge pricing." The exact amount fluctuates as the two apps compete with one another, but it is often at least double the normal

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rate. Uber drivers keep 72-80 percent of their fares, and Lyft drivers 75 percent. Both apps now also let customers add tips.

Miller fondly recalls one night when he drove a group home to Livonia at more than four times the normal rate. "They weren't so drunk that I was worried they were going to throw up in my car or get violent, but they were hilarious," he says. "I made as much on that ride as I would make in an entire evening."

But the drivers agree that those longer trips are highly uncommon in Ann Arbor. "I can show you days where I did twenty-five runs and not one run I made over three dollars on," Iskra says. "It's just kids going a half-mile."

That annoys some drivers, but others embrace it. Weiler says she regularly gave about 125 rides per night Thursdays through Saturdays, some of them "just from South U to Rick's" around the corner on Church St. "I would just drink a lot of caffeine and treat it as a mission," she says. "The short rides were fun, to see how many I could knock out in an hour.

"It was so easy. As soon as you're dropping someone off, you're getting dinged again. I didn't mind those. It made the time go by."

Weiler is unique in embracing the South U beat. "I will never touch South U between one and three a.m.," Iskra says. "I've done that in taxi work. If you want [your car] to get puked in, go ahead." Miller says he avoided both Rick's and Scorekeepers "like the plague" at closing time. Instead, he'd stick to Main St.: "That's where the older people, the yuppies, went," he says. "They're not universally better, but they're older. They're more likely to know how much [alcohol] they can handle."

Though bar runs are the most lucrative, other shifts have their advantages. Iskra switches his work hours to shake things up and sometimes drives to the Detroit suburbs, where he can often find longer rides. Shtulman preferred to drive during the day or early evening; he was happy to drive people to the bar, but not back. "Sometimes the behavior is fun," he says. "It gets a little bit like Taxicab Confessions sometimes. But I just don't like driving late at night, and I don't want people puking in my car."

Street Stories

Having a rotating cast of strangers getting in and out of your car produces endless stories, and drivers are happy to share them. "You overhear some of the greatest things," Iskra says. "You hear about people hooking up, people on drugs--people doing Adderall all the time. That's not uncommon. There's a little coke in there."

The unusual length of an airport trip creates other opportunities for positive interactions between drivers and passengers. Weiler recalls a lasting connection she made with a passenger she drove from Ann Arbor to Detroit Metro. The man was on his way to explore southeastern Asia, which she also aspired to do. The two bonded over the subject, exchanged numbers at the end of the trip, and still get together occasionally for a beer.

Other substances can be more worrisome. Once, after taking someone to Henry Ford Hospital, Shtulman picked up a fare in Detroit. Two passengers got into his car, one of them finishing off a joint before he did so. After playing his stereo "so loud that the rearview mirror was shaking like it might fall off the windshield," he says, one of the passengers received a call.

"He says, 'Yeah, we're going to the party now. Do you have the stuff?'" Shtulman says. "Apparently the guy didn't, and he said, 'What do you mean, no? You're supposed to have five keys'"--meaning kilograms. "Then he says to me, 'we have to make another stop, a detour,' and we go to this abandoned gas station. One of them gets out, and he goes in the back, and he comes back with stuff--whatever it was, I did not ask--and we went to the party, and they got out, and everything was fine. But I was a little bit nervous about being stuck in the middle of what appeared to me to be a major drug deal."

Another of the regular hazards of the job, especially on bar nights, is vomit, and most drivers have at least one story about a rider making a real mess in their back seat. Drivers generally have a laid-back attitude about those incidents, particularly because both Uber and Lyft charge riders--and pay drivers--a "cleaning fee" of up to $250 if a rider makes a mess.

"I can pick up some puke for 250 bucks," VanDongen says.

Miller's only had one puke incident. But he's twice picked up couples where a woman was intoxicated to the point of incoherence, and the second one still troubles his conscience.

The first time, the woman was so drunk Miller had to help her boyfriend carry her from the car to her home, but he felt somewhat reassured that the man, too, seemed bewildered, and thankful for the help. On a second occasion, "I didn't feel as confident about the guy," and he wasn't sure if he was taking them to her place or his. "It's funny," he says. "You live to a certain age, and you start to have lifelong regrets. It's like, 'OK, that's going to be one of them.'"

Corporate Cultures

Miller says Uber should do more to prepare drivers for such situations. "You say, 'How do I deal with belligerent drunks?,' and they say, 'Use your best judgment.' I always thought the subtext was, 'Don't lose money for us [by turning down a ride] unless you have to.'"

Drivers agree that the apps' attitudes toward their employees are extremely hands-off, although some of them don't mind that approach. Iskra says Uber has a "frat-boy mentality," and derides former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as "the biggest asshole on the planet." But the pros of working for the company vastly outweigh the cons for Iskra, especially compared to his past life as a taxi driver.

To earn $700 to $800 a week at the cab company, he says, he'd have to put in sixty or more hours behind the wheel, including every weekend. Now, he works thirty to fifty hours a week, sets his own schedule, and estimates that he makes $700 a week--or $1,000 if he works the weekend.

Iskra notes that he has to pay for gas, his car's insurance, and maintenance costs. He's set up an LLC for tax purposes and deducts all those expenses, "so by the time it kicks back to me [as income], I'm technically poor."

VanDongen agrees that wear and tear on the vehicle makes the apps a lot less lucrative than they seem at first--though "sometimes it takes people an entire car" to figure that out. "They're going to put 150,000 miles on a car," he says, "it's going to die on them, and then they're going to realize: 'Wait, I have no money in the bank for another car, and this car is done with.'"

Miller puts it more bluntly: "Driving for Uber is not making money so much as it is trading equity in your car for cash up front."

Last summer, Iskra temporarily switched to driving for Lyft. Uber's business was "in the crapper," he says, amid the flurry of scandals that led to the ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick. Nationally, Uber's market share slipped from 90 percent to about 75 percent. But Iskra switched back after Uber did some corporate housecleaning and rolled out more driver-friendly features, including a tipping function and payment for the time they spend driving to pick up riders.

Uber remains the go-to option for most drivers, because it still has far more riders. Still, Shtulman says his decision to drive for Lyft was an easy one.

"How many bad stories have you seen or read about Uber in the last year?" he asks. "How many have you read about Lyft? And can you think of a city that is more politically correct than Ann Arbor? That was the reason."

The Bottom Line

Weiler says she "had a really good time" driving for Uber and didn't have any negative experiences. But she always carried pepper spray and a knife within easy reach, and concerns about her own safety never fully abated. "I think I got away kind of lucky," she says. "Being a female, I think about that a lot. So I probably would not do it again."

Miller says his experience was "more good than bad." But he doesn't expect to go back to driving. "Uber, for me, served a purpose," he says. "I needed money in the bank to pay for child care, and I got it. And as soon as my wife and I got to a place where we didn't need the money, I quit."

VanDongen feels strongly enough about the apps' value that he advocated for state legislation that took effect last year, legalizing them while also imposing some regulation. Though he drives only occasionally now, he reflects fondly on the period when he drove more frequently. But he thinks that fewer people may be willing to drive once they realize the gig isn't as lucrative as it looks. If that happens, he says, riders "might have to start paying more, or at least paying more for the slow times."

Between the cab company and Uber, Iskra has been driving for five years. He says that's usually the point when drivers "get that bitter taxicab syndrome where you think everybody's an asshole and you hate the human race." But he still loves the work, partly because he changes the times and places he drives to break the monotony. And "after doing this for so long, the idea of punching a clock, getting paid by the hour, paying taxes, and having a boss tell me what to do--I don't want to do it," he says.

When Shtulman started driving for Lyft, he quickly burned through his mileage limit on the two cars he was leasing at the time. He took some time off until the leases were up but found he missed the work. "There's good and bad," he says, "but mostly it's just nice people and a nice time."

Shtulman's father was a cabdriver in New York City for more than thirty-five years, and he used to think his dad was "out of his mind" to stick with it that long. But now, he says, "I feel a bit like I'm channeling him. On the other hand, I'm doing the kind of stuff that's putting cabdrivers out of business. And then, in another few years, self-driving cars will put me out of business. So it's just natural evolution."

Shtulman says people who knew him from the Jewish Federation have reacted with some surprise to his new occupation. "It's like, how far have I fallen?" he chuckles. However, he says that as he considered other "real work opportunities" after retirement, "there was no other job I was going to take that was going to pay me more than I was making, and there was no reason to believe I was going to like the other thing more." And Lyft lets him work as much as he wants, when he wants. That came in handy recently, as he prepared to move to Colorado to be closer to his kids and grandkids.

He plans to continue driving there. "It's what I need right now, and I enjoy doing it," he says. "And I don't think I've fallen at all. I think it's very cool."     (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2018.]


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