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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Monday, August 31, 2015

All Roads Lead to the Sunset Strip

"I have the Uber app on my cellphone."
                       - Patton Oswalt

There have been a lot of headlines lately regarding the ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.* A lot of heated rhetoric not only from the people who feel these services are detracting from market income (taxi and limo drivers leading that particular charge), and from people who have tried driving for one or the other and found their experience lacking.

(*Does anyone else think we're getting a lot of our corporate names from Germanic and Scandinavian sources these days? Uber, Lyft...Ikea...DRNK Coffee...Keurig...)

Several months ago my wife and I were looking at our increasingly tight bank account and realized we should look at other potential sources of income. I work full time as any regular reader knows, in a job which takes me out of town and on the road quite a bit. My wife is a singer and so has a great deal more free time for other ventures. We've tried a number of different avenues, including selling coffee, graphic design (which she still does) and other ways to supplement the combined income.

Then I ran across Uber, and suggested that perhaps she ought to investigate the business model. After careful scrutiny she decided to give it a try and a month later convinced me to do the same. (She drives Monday-Friday, I drive weekend mornings. This gives us the best options toward income generation as well as avoiding conflicts with our professional gigs.)

Our Ubermobile
To set ourselves up for the greatest chance of success we took a look at timing and what our goals would be for income generation. (We went into this mindful that gasoline, automotive wear and tear and taxation would be issues we needed to consider.) So we decided that our targets would be $50 per day -- our share -- with a combined weekly goal of $350. A nice little extra amount in anybody's pocket, and well within the realm of possibility from the activity levels we've seen.

And we both enjoy it. For me it's a chance to get out and do something I enjoy (explore and drive) while meeting interesting folks and intersecting with their lives for a handful of minutes. It gets me out of the house and away from the computer, while at the same time giving me a chance to drive around and rediscover old neighborhoods or new ones. Kind of fun.

And so far, with only a few exceptions, everyone we have driven has been a fascinating encounter. (Those that aren't are usually in some sort of stressful circumstance or hungover -- we don't drive evenings, so don't get the drunkards, but my morning schedule does involve more than a few hangovers.)

And we've both had some good stories to tell. Of people we've met who do fascinating things, or particular drives that were out of the norm for some reason.

Now. To address some of the controversies that seem to be swirling around the services. I don't drive for Lyft (my wife does), so my observations are strictly Uber-related.

First: The Expectations.
Many of the negative comments I've seen from other drivers all revolve around missed expectations. The service doesn't pay as much as they expected. We did our homework and knew, going in, that it wouldn't make us rich, nor would it do anything more than supplement an existing income.

Second, Uber does some things that are annoying. What company does not? In this case it usually revolves around expectations of the drivers and the various financial arrangements and services. I'm not a fan of UberPool, for example, which allows riders to select an option which means you have to pick up a second rider along the way or otherwise get a lower rate overall.  And, frankly it's confusing at times when you get a second ping -- it's often best to simply go where the application says to go and not argue about it. But the second rider, in my opinion, makes it less convenient for the first, and as a service provider that grates on my instincts. But the riders select the option, not me, so caveat emptor and move on.

Another flaw in the system is not knowing how long a particular ride is going to be. I don't mind the long ones, but the very short ones can be a problem depending upon how far you are away from the rider when you get the dispatch ping. It's not unusual to receive a ping from a rider who is ten minutes or so away...only to arrive and discover that the ride is a handful of blocks, meaning you get (in LA at least) just a few bucks for your effort. In one case I received a ping which required me twelve minutes for me to get to the rider, only to then discover he was -- literally -- going five blocks. Two bucks and some change for my effort, hardly enough for the gasoline.

Public transit
I call this Uber Roulette. You never know what and who you're going to get. In a way this is fun, particularly when you get a great rider or long run, but a hungover zombie going five blocks after you've traipsed across town to get them is nobody's idea of time or money well spent.

Then there is the advertising and competition for drivers. My wife and I have both seen several television ads looking to recruit new drivers. Not riders. This, to us, is detrimental to our financial model. An overabundance of drivers simply means everyone makes less, while a healthy market of riders means we can all make good fares without the riders being gouged or delayed by too much time spent waiting.

Second: The Controversies
Uber, and to a lesser extent other services, have been fighting an ongoing battle with taxi drivers, cities, airports and other transportation services which consider Uber to be an unfair competitor.

Let me address a few things.

Public transit
As an Uber user myself, one observation I have had is that by and large the Uber vehicle and driver are nicer and better equipped than are many taxis. Inevitably the Uber drivers are more engaged and engaging, and don't seem to mind the conversation as much as taxi drivers do. And I have had any number of frustrating and unsatisfying experiences with taxi drivers who don't know the city. Uber's app gives drivers a much more complete and accurate pathway, and I've never had one end up circling an area several blocks away from my destination, nor have I had an Uber ride get lost en route. 

(A few years ago I had one cab driver who actually required me to give him directions to find a freeway after picking me up -- 20 minutes late -- at my house. It's a truism in LA that if you get lost, drive in a straight line: you'll encounter an ocean or a freeway sooner or later. Now in all fairness, I have had a half dozen far better experiences with local taxis, so this is probably not a complete assessment.)

But, my own personal use aside, what I have discovered as a driver is that Uber's average rider is one who would typically use public transportation rather than a taxi. Far and away the majority of people I pick up and transport are not the taxi services' bread and butter, they are the local transit system's users. Busses and subways, versus taxis or private cars. 

Avoiding the Night Scene
This is an important point, I think, in the overall debate. Who, exactly, are being targeted by the various services? Yes, there are exceptions, and in many cases I do end up at LAX in a ride that would normally be taken in a taxi. I would guess that's maybe 5% of the rides I get. The remainder are longer rides -- such as a groups of young people pooling their money to go many miles up to an amusement park or concert or event. This sort of group would usually be relegated to a bus system, and likely would never consider a taxi for the same run.

Or sometimes it's people on a Saturday morning who -- how shall I put this delicately -- wake up in someone else's abode. Or people who are using Uber and having the ride paid for by other people -- like the mother from Bolivia I describe below, or someone being put in a car by a friend who is taking care of the cost.

So in a large way, viewing this strictly from my own perspective as a user of Uber and taxis, as well as a driver for Uber, I think there's a missed conversational mark in the ongoing debate -- in several directions.

Third: The Adventures
As you probably noticed, the title of this piece is "All Roads Lead to the Sunset Strip". My wife and I play a little game when one of us is leaving to go drive for a while: "Where will you end up?" 

We both drive starting in Long Beach, a large city some thirty miles southeast of West Hollywood, and there are a couple of regular scenarios for us. First: rides which keep us just around around Long Beach, and perhaps the South Bay. It keeps us local, and the runs are usually short.

A second scenario is that we get a ride in our area that takes us on a long journey somewhere else in the LA metro area -- usually deep into Orange County or up into Los Angeles proper. 

(This is another aspect of the Roulette game that I referenced above. No matter where you're picking people up -- anywhere from working class South Central Los Angeles to the wealthy neighborhoods of Newport Beach -- the destination is a mystery until they pile into the car.)

The reference in the title of this column is a reference to the apparent reality that when if we're drawn up to LA for whatever reasons, 90% of the time we seem to have a ride that takes us to the Sunset Strip. No other destination seems to occur with the same frequency. 

I shared this with one of my passengers, who said he thought it was because of the type of person, at least in LA, who uses Uber. And that the Strip represented a social destination for that kind of demographic. That's an argument I can't refute. In many cases the riders are younger, and seem to be headed for either work for some sort of gathering (wedding parties, bachelor parties, pool parties, etc). So he may be exactly right. And the Strip is an interesting destination to be sure. It's also a place we pick up rides...so it god both ways (pun intended).

And this hits again to the nature of the rides we get as an Uber driver: I've taken people to work, particularly when they are late; to parties when they are in great mood; home after a late night of too much of the parties and are looking forward to nothing more than a bed, a few Advil and a sound sleep; to people headed towards vacation or business trips; and the (thankfully) infrequent emergency run somewhere. In one case, a cell phone was my sole passenger as I ran it forty miles to the owner, who had carelessly left it behind the night before.

And the people themselves can be just about any type of person. I had a rider some weeks ago who works for a medical marijuana dispensary, and regaled me with some of the adventures -- not all good -- such a job can entail. In another case I had a television commercial producer who was busy patting out a raging forest fire of a problem from the backseat of my car as we drove nearly forty miles between Long Beach and his office in Santa Monica. 

And yesterday a very nice woman from Bolivia, who spoke very little English, needed to get to LAX in a hurry -- not because she was late for a flight, but because her daughter had inadvertently left with the woman's passport and was herself boarding a plane so could not make the forty minute drive to run the passport back to Mom in time. (Mom was schedule to travel home next week and would have been unable to board without her documents.) 

We had a very nice time in the car as Mom asked several questions about Los Angeles, and -- her in the best English she could muster, and me in my own mortally wounded High School Spanish -- we managed to have a much more relaxed time after she had retrieved her passport and we were beaded back to her hotel. 

So Über is not perfect, but if you approach it will the correct expectations and goals it can be both a great service for riders, as well as a moderately profitable and safe way to make some extra money. I cannot speak to the experience of others, but my own has been a good one, and certainly a fun one at most times.


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