“How long have you been driving for Uber?”
My husband’s question echoed from the back seat as we rode through the hills of San Francisco. We recently spent three days using Uber to get around the city, where our daughter Emily was moving to start a new job. We were there to help with the move, but as with most trips, it was the unexpected that made the biggest impression, opening up new insights and capturing my thoughts.
Herb has used Uber for business travel for a few years, but with the exception of an Uber ride after a flat tire several months ago, this was my first experience. It’s a simple process: You install the App on your cell phone and link it to a credit card. When you need a ride, you log in, and a driver near your location accepts the job. You are given the driver’s first name – and he or she is given yours – and the make and model of the car. You can choose the type of service you prefer: UberX is a typical car; Uber Black is a more traditional “black car” service.
It turned out to be much less expensive and easier than renting a car, paying for parking and finding parking in the city. Our fare from the hotel to Emily’s apartment was also less expensive than a taxi.
The Uber drivers we met were as varied as the cars they drove. Our first driver from the airport to the hotel set the Uber bar very high. Like a polite bellman, he took our bags and carefully placed them in his trunk. He announced the temperature and said we would be listening to “light jazz,” which he would change if we wished. His Prius was impeccably clean and had decorative fabric covering the front seat arm rest.
Herb asked him how long he had been driving for Uber. “You must guess!” he exclaimed. Herb guessed three years; I joked that it must be one day. He laughed at my answer. “You are close – just one month!” It turned out that he had spent 10 years driving around San Francisco as a supervisor for an appliance store and was hoping the shift to Uber would be a worthwhile move. We hoped so, too. His kindness and enthusiasm were infectious.
Given the opportunity, most of the drivers clearly loved to talk. About half of the 17 we met were using Uber as part-time work. All of them also drove for Lyft, a San Francisco-based competitor. Most seemed happy with the work.
We typically rode in the back seat, but when the three of us shared a ride, Herb sat in front, always striking up a conversation, asking the driver how long he had worked for Uber and how he liked his job. (My husband is a former journalist and loves to ask a lot of questions!) From that point, the conversation almost always flowed.
Only one driver didn’t want to engage. When Herb asked him how he liked driving for Uber, he said, “We’ll see.” And that was the end of the conversation. The driver stuck me as someone who had been doing well and maybe had fallen on hard times. He drove a Jaguar, but had trouble getting the doors to open. He appeared preoccupied as he constantly changed the radio channels. And he did not seem too happy when I asked if he would mind closing the wide-open sun roof on the chilly San Francisco night. After he dropped us off, I watched the sun roof roll back open to the sky.
Our only female driver picked us up at a Safeway grocery store one night. She said the trunk of her Toyota Camry was full, so we piled our shopping bags on the floor and on our laps. As she drove through the neighborhoods, she offered advice to our daughter on where it was safe to walk alone at night.
One evening we needed to transport a small piece of furniture to Emily’s apartment. The salesman at CB2 suggested using Uber rather than the store’s delivery service. It was less expensive, and she could have the item immediately without worrying about having to be home at a specified time to receive the delivery. The salesman also told us about a relatively new app called Lugg, which provides a large car and a driver who is willing to help “lug” the item for you. We decided on “Uber XL,” and were greeted by a driver with an SUV. The driver said his vehicle was used predominately by people heading to the airport with a large amount of luggage and by large groups on the weekends.
Our last Uber driver took us to the airport for our flight home to San Diego. It was a beautiful blue-sky morning, and he had an equally sunny air as he drove his Hyundai Sonata down Highway 101. He was retired and said he was driving for Uber for fun and a little extra Las Vegas money. “I don’t care if you want to go around the block or to San Jose,” he told us. “I’ll take you there.”
The most interesting driver of the trip was one of those people who genuinely seemed happy in his own skin. It was rush hour as we headed to a restaurant in the Mission district, and he energetically wove his Hyundai Genesis around side streets, avoiding the traffic and pointing out new buildings and changes in the area. He told us he had driven a San Francisco taxi for 10 years and was happy he had made the switch to Uber when the company started. He said it paid well, he liked the independence and that some of his friends from the taxi world still ridicule him for moving to Uber. His friends, he said, refuse to change, stubbornly hanging on to the past, missing out on new opportunities and a new future.
And that was my biggest take-away from our three days riding Uber: Embracing change.
As I stood outside our hotel the next morning, I watched the familiar yellow, green and black cabs line up and drive away. Cars with the Uber “U” and pink “Lyft” placards displayed in their front windshields darted around them as passengers tracked arrival times on cell phones. It seemed to me the end of an era, or at least a slowly evolving change. It made sense, too, that it was happening in the city where companies like Uber and Lyft are based, where cutting-edge technology becomes outdated in the blink of an eye. And as with most change, moving forward is a smart way to keep us from getting stuck in the slow lane.