While thousands of other Cedar Rapidians gathered at restaurants and parties and shouted, “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 2019, I sat behind the wheel of my car driving down Interstate 380 with two strangers whispering quietly to each other in what sounded like Mandarin Chinese in the back seat. It wasn’t the most exciting way to ring in the new year, but I was exactly where I wanted to be. New Year’s Eve was the best night for rideshare drivers, and I loved being a rideshare driver.
I’ve told readers before that in my two-plus decades in the American workforce, I’ve been fortunate to work some interesting jobs. With interesting jobs come questions about what it’s like to do those jobs. Before it was overtaken by my position as an opinion writer, no job I’ve ever worked ranked higher on the scale of intrigue from family, friends and consumers than my three years driving for Uber, the oldest and largest ride-hailing app service on the market.
Most people can’t fathom the idea of a person using their own personal vehicle to drive strangers places for compensation, so when they meet someone who does, as I found out repeatedly over the years, they have questions. How did it work? Did I make good money? Did I like doing it? Those questions often led to long conversations during which I would share my experiences with the intrigued party about what it was like to be a rideshare driver.
A crash course for those not familiar with rideshare apps such as Uber or Lyft: Rideshare works by through an application on one’s smartphone that uses GPS to match drivers with nearby passengers, which the apps normally call “riders.”
When a rider needs to go somewhere using the service, they will put their desired destination in the app, be quoted an approximate fare, confirm their ride and be matched with the nearest driver. On the other end, when a driver is ready to start driving, they sign into their app and wait for the first “ping” to direct them to a rider’s location.
At the end of the trip, the rider’s payment source is charged the fare, and the driver’s portion of that fare is credited to their digital wallet. Drivers must immediately rate their riders on a scale of one to five before picking up their next rider, and riders have the opportunity to rate the driver, thus creating an incentive for everyone to be on their best behavior, lest a rider with a low rating be declined by drivers or a driver with a low rating be suspended from the app. My 4.93 driver rating told prospective riders that out of every 500 trips I took, only 7 riders thought I was less than top-notch. (My 5.0 passenger rating told prospective drivers that I was a little angel.)
I always felt that I made good money driving rideshare because I know that “good money” amounts not simply to a dollar total, but whether I felt adequately compensated given what was expected of me. Like all jobs, a person’s traits, talents, abilities and work ethic play a large role in their level of success in any chosen field.
At the risk of sounding self-impressed, my earnings indicated that my personality and work ethic made me well-suited for rideshare driving. Thanks in part to tips, I averaged over $20/hour even after gasoline and other expenses. On New Year’s Eve, I would make as much as $50/hour (which is why I especially miss being an Uber driver around this time of year.)
I was especially OK with my earnings given the liberties I had as a driver. Considering my volatile health, it was nice not to have to worry about losing my job every time I logged out early when feeling unwell or took extended time off to have surgery. With no assigned shift, a rideshare driver works whenever they want, and never when they don’t. I was more than willing to waive the guarantee of a preset schedule and fringe benefits that most drivers don’t seek in the first place in exchange for that kind of freedom and opportunity, not to mention some pretty enjoyable — and memorable — experiences.
Most passengers liked having a driver who would engage in repartee and exchange a few feisty quips. At times, driving Uber was an exercise in assertiveness, when riders would try to act cute after a few drinks. One night as a rider climbed into my back seat, his friend decided to be funny and lay down on the hood of my car.
Both gentlemen were probably expecting me to sit there with a glare on my face, but instead — to the rider’s delight, I should add — I honked the horn, leaned out the window, and yelled, “GET THE HELL OFF MY CAR!” The friend slinked away embarrassed while the rider crowed with laughter. He tipped generously.
That assertiveness — and good humor — proved key to not only a fun, but also a safe driving experience. Occasionally a rider would hop in smelling like they’d been smoking the electric lettuce and I’d give them a gentle but firm reminder that illegal substances were not permitted in my car. “I’m pretty sure I like you,” I’d tell them with a smile, “but I won’t like you at all if I get arrested because you brought a joint in here.”
I had that conversation several times the evening of April 20, 2019, when the annual day of celebration for marijuana smokers fell on a Saturday night. I also took riders at their request through the drive-thru at four separate Taco Bells. One more and I would have hit all five in town. (Bingo!)
The most common question I ever got about driving rideshare — from both riders and friends and family alike — was “Are you ever worried for your safety?” My answer was simple: “Hardly at all.” I was using a service that had GPS tracking and an emergency call feature only a button away. If trouble was headed my way, it would find me, regardless of where I was or what I was doing. A cold hard reality of this world is that bad creatures lurk everywhere.
To that end, it was very satisfying to know I was playing a role in helping more people stay safe. One summer night I was sent to a Cedar Rapids bar. Two intoxicated women were waiting, one curled up on the sidewalk passed out while nearby a greasy-looking man looked rather intensely at her. I turned on my interior light so the man could see the icy glare I’d put on just for him while the helpless girl’s friend dragged her to the car.
When the man saw me, he softened. He’d been looking at the woman not out of malicious intent but out of concern, and now looked relieved that a responsible person had come to collect the girls. I drove both to the less-plastered one’s apartment and helped the especially inebriated one up the stairs. To be intoxicated is to be in a state of great vulnerability. To be intoxicated while young and female is especially dangerous. To be there for so many of them gave me a sense of pride that I hadn’t expected when I signed up to drive people places for extra cash.
I don’t remember my final ride as an Uber driver. I logged out in March 2020 thinking I would return the following weekend to drive college kids around Iowa City, a niche market I really enjoyed. The COVID-19 pandemic upended those plans, as it did so many others. By the time it seemed sensible to return to rideshare driving, life and work had taken a different direction and I’d let someone talk me into starting a career as an opinion writer.
I look back on it fondly, as I always do on this holiday, grateful that I got to do something so weird and wonderful. New Year’s was a great opportunity for rideshare drivers. Rideshare driving was a great opportunity for me. May we all be so lucky to each find our own weird and wonderful opportunities in 2023. Cheers to our new year.
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