Aaron Marks spent the majority of his St. Patrick’s day at a soccer game — not playing, but as an Uber driver.
After turning on his app that morning, he found himself at a Raleigh hotel. A man entered the car to get a ride, and soon after they set off for an undercover mission: to watch the man’s son play in a national soccer tournament from the secluded front seat of Marks' car. The man didn't want his son to be nervous, so he opted for a covert way to view the game. The man’s son never knew that his dad was watching, and after a few hours at the soccer complex with the ride meter running, Marks had pocketed $215.
For college students and professionals alike, ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have grown in popularity. But increasing competition, negative national media attention and common misconceptions among riders have changed the way many view the services.
A desire for easy, extra cash
Marks first started working for Uber last November as a way to make extra money to cover the costs of an Ironman race. A typical weekend of driving often begins at 6 p.m. on Friday night and lasts until 2 a.m. — because that’s where the best money is, he said. On Saturdays, he tends to do the same shift, if not longer.
If he’s not making at least $20 an hour, Marks said, he goes home. It’s not worth it to spend his weekend driving around if he’s not getting at least that.
“A minimum trip pays you $3,” he said. “But if I’m downtown and I drive five different people to a bar a half mile away I can do five trips in an hour and I’ve just made $15, and then you throw in some tips and I’m making $20 an hour."
Uber drivers across the country earn an average of $16.90, according to the 2018 Uber and Lyft driver survey administered by Harry Campbell, host of The Rideshare Guy podcast and blog. Based on the 1,143 responses from drivers across the nation, the figure does not include expenses, which he estimates are between $3-5 per hour driving, Campbell said in an email.
Similar to Marks, Durham resident Emily Samfield began working as a driver when she retired in 2015. She found herself in need of extra cash, and after a three-day approval process in which Uber checked her driver’s license, registration, car insurance and ran a background check, she was accepted as a driver.
But times have changed since she first started driving, she said. While she’s no longer desperate for cash, she has found that the company is charging riders less and less for their rides, while the Uber corporation is adding more charges that do not affect the driver’s pay.
“The driver’s percentage only comes out of the base rate; it doesn’t include like an airport fee or a service charge. Uber gets all that,” Samfield said. “We’re saturated with drivers, so you don’t get as many calls. I’ll get online for two or three hours now without getting a single call. It didn’t used to be like that.”
Services used for different reasons
In the five months that he’s been driving, Marks said he was surprised by the diverse array of clients he sees. Many residents of the Triangle don’t use Uber as a luxury, he said, but as a cost-effective way to get to work if they don’t have the money to own a car.
UNC first-year Ashley Boldt typically uses Uber several times a week. Without a car on campus, the service lets her go to the supermarket, the airport and to destinations off-campus with her friends.
A good Uber driver is on time, doesn’t scare her with their driving and is generally a nice person, Boldt said. Occasionally, she said she has had drivers that have made her feel uncomfortable.
“A few times I’ve seen my drivers go off the route of the GPS and I always get nervous for a second, even if nothing has ever come of it,” she said.
When Marks is out driving late on a weekend night, he often drives people home from bars and parties. This is why the company exists, he said, to get people who have been drinking alcohol home safely.
“Whatever mood (the customers are) in is going to be enhanced and you’ve got to understand that and be open to that,” he said. “You can’t let one person ruin your night, so if there’s one person in a bad mood complaining the entire trip, it is what it is."
Publicity and misconceptions
According to the Rideshare Guy survey, just over 58 percent of Uber drivers said they were satisfied with their job. The company as a whole has improved in their interactions with drivers, Samfield said, but negative press still clouds the way many view Uber.
She said a common misconception riders have is that tips for drivers aren’t necessary. You never know how much a driver is making, she said, and just like any service industry, a tip reflects the quality of the service offered.
Boldt hardly ever tips her drivers, unless they provide an outstanding ride. To her, the cost of a ride is already high enough, even though she knows that much of the rate she pays doesn’t go directly to the driver.
“I feel like when I’m older and have an actual job I would tip more, because right now I don’t have any disposable income, but if I had a job I wouldn’t really care as much about one or two dollars here or there,” Boldt said. “But right now, that stuff is still semi-important to me.”
Despite frustrations with the Uber corporation and competition between drivers, Samfield feels that her job is gratifying.
“Even though I’m not still desperate for money or anything I do it because I really enjoy the people that I meet,” she said.
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