In a few hours I will feel elated. Then despairing. But at 11am, as I pull out of my south London street in a Toyota Auris estate, I am trying to feel calm. It’s a new career. I’m about to start my first shift as an Uber driver.
You don’t join Uber for a laugh, or even a feature in a Saturday magazine. It has taken me six months and £550 in admin costs to get here. There are criminal record checks, medicals, training in how to navigate using the London A-Z – there’s no GPS in sight during training. Then you sit a Transport for London (TfL) topographical test, answering questions about how to get from Parsons Green to the Old Kent Road using the aforementioned A-Z. If you pass, you wait several weeks or months for your private hire licence from TfL before “onboarding” with Uber. This where you learn the rules – don’t talk about sport or politics, never wake someone up by touching them – and how the app works. Finally, you get a car and upload your insurance documents to the app. Only then are you ready to take passengers.
After pressing “go” on the Uber Driver app, nothing happens. I turn down the radio to low, indicate left onto Tooting Broadway, drive slowly up to the lights and keep my wits about me. I’m on high alert.
Ping, ping, ping. The phone feels as if it’s jumping off its windscreen mounting. There’s a job two minutes away. I tap to accept. It’s still pinging. Doh, I have to swipe. It’s stopped pinging. The job is mine. This is happening for real. I have to take people from A to B across London with only an algorithm and a sat-nav to guide me.
I find the street, but there is no one waiting. I keep going before realising I’ve gone too far and have to go round the block again. The app, though, doesn’t understand human error and thinks I’ve arrived. So it starts the meter on the waiting period. My riders – this is Uber speak for passengers, not a nod to Jilly Cooper – are being charged even though I haven’t met them yet.
Second time round, I see them in the doorway, hugging someone goodbye. It’s two young Latin American women in their early twenties. I help them with their suitcases, check we’re all in and swipe the app to begin.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve become curious about what it’s like to work for Uber. I’ve spoken to dozens of drivers about their income, their hours, their costs. But that professional curiosity – I’m a journalist by trade – has now merged with an urgent need for a second career. Freelance journalism, always precarious, no longer pays. Not when you have a toddler in your life and a former partner in need of child maintenance. Uber’s mantra is flexibility. This is a behemoth that seems to be unstoppable. I am joining three million other Uber drivers around the world across 600 cities in 70 different countries. I’ve never been a taxi driver before. But how hard can it be with an app to tell you where to go?
The women tell me they’re catching the Eurostar from St Pancras. I ask when their train is and the reply is 12.20. Hang on, it’s 11.30 now – aren’t you supposed to check in 45 minutes before departure? We only started this journey a few minutes ago and we’re stuck in traffic in south London. I decide I must have misunderstood. They are not chatty apart from a question about that big building next to the Thames – the Houses of Parliament. They are talking in Spanish, getting uneasy. So I tell them about the 45-minute rule and they confirm that, yes, they are due to depart in 15 minutes. By the time I drop them right outside departures, they have five minutes until their train. They’ll never make it. If they miss their train it won’t be my fault, but I can’t help feeling implicated. It’s an inauspicious start.
Next up is a strikingly glamorous young woman from a low-rise estate. She’s wearing sunglasses and she’s cross. I went round a one-way system and have taken ten minutes to get to her rather than the four promised by the app. She’s probably keeping someone waiting, I think. It’s impossible not to form a judgment about your rider. And this one reminds me of the high-class “escorts” we used to serve at the Notting Hill restaurant where I once worked. Attractive, impatient, a little haughty, keen to show themselves superior to the waiting staff. The traffic is snarled up on Euston Road. I turn up the radio when a Roots Manuva track comes on and sense her annoyance.
The Auris feels claustrophobic. My first act on renting the car was to bin the yellow plastic tree air freshener, but its noxious scent – reminiscent of people trying to mask vomit – is still present. I feel I should talk to her about the gridlock, but am nervous and can’t find the right words. Half an hour later, we’re somewhere near Mayfair. The sat-nav directs us into a small cobbled square. I slow to a stop and put on an avuncular tone to signal it’s the end of the journey. “It’s not here,” comes the voice from the back. I look at the app and see we’ve got another three minutes to go. Why the hell did it bring me into this tiny square with just a small, single-file road out? I feel my cheeks begin to burn and stammer an apology. When we arrive at our real destination – a smart boutique hotel – she can’t get away quick enough. I’m out of my depth. But it’s early days. I feel strangely elated. I blagged it. I survived.
By evening, I’m full of gloom. My driver profile shows I’ve been rated. One star. One out of five! I feel wounded. As a journalist I’ve never been exposed to such a direct, ostensibly objective rating system. Even though driving is not my vocation, it still feels deeply hurtful. Far from blagging it, I’ve been seen through. I haven’t achieved anything. Tomorrow I’ll have to go back and do it all again. My Auris with insurance is costing £205 a week. That morning I made a grand total of £28.79 in 2 hours. By which time my phone battery was totally drained and I had to stop to get to a meeting.
For the next few days, I find no time to do Uber again. At the back of my mind, I’m aware I’m avoiding it. I have a complex about getting into that Toyota. Most drivers have a rating of 4.5 or above. If your rating is too low you are discontinued. What will happen if I get another single star? It’s not even clear which of the two journeys gave me the one star – the app is deliberately ambiguous, to protect riders. So I will never know if it was the high-class hooker – in my mind that is what she has become – or the ill-prepared Latin Americans. What’s clear is that I’m off to a terrible start.
My second Uber shift is a Sunday afternoon. The app takes me to Sloaney Earlsfield. First up is a rugby chap in headphones, followed by a couple with a puppy coming back from the pub. Then an earnest young professional fetching pancakes from a Chinese takeaway. Pancake Man initially tells me my sat-nav is sending us the wrong way, before realising it’s him that’s made the mistake. He then asks me to wait on a double red line – “I won’t be a minute” – while he pops in and picks up pancakes. He’s three or four minutes. I drop him back and head for home, but it’s with horror that I see – a quarter of an hour later – that his journey is still clocking up the minutes. Mortified at overcharging him, I cancel the whole trip. Only later do I discover you can phone the Uber call centre and get them to cut fares. So for my couple of hours driving I collect £4.34 and £4.38. On the other hand, I come home singing along to Adele’s Make You Feel My Love on Magic. I have paid extra for a car with a digital radio so I can listen to BBC Radio 6 Music. I was convinced a radio would keep me sane. But I’m discovering that with Uber, you don’t want to listen to what you would at home. Cheesy pop, a bit of funk and the odd total eclipse of the heart are what make the minicab world go round. On getting in, I find the nice couple with the puppy gave me five stars. Sometimes you just know. Finally, I’m off the mark.
Monday morning, just gone seven and the boot is full of cake. “Are you in catering?” It turns out my first rider of the day is a financial analyst. Today is his birthday and, by company tradition, he has to bring in cake for the entire office, something that he doesn’t seem over the moon about. We hit it off in the rush-hour traffic. I tell him about the tyranny of being rated when you’ve barely begun. He talks about the time he was stitched up by financial journalists. It’s the kind of conversation that Uber is brilliant for: two people curious about each other’s worlds; two people who will never meet again, but share half an hour of conspiratorial chat. I help him unload his cakes. Later, I’ll see that he’s given me my first tip – £2 – and, just as importantly, 5 stars. Thank f***.
But before I can build on this – humiliation. I collect a Dutch software guy from a hotel near Bayswater. It’s 8.02am and the app is going mental – like an alarm you can’t stop. You can swipe to dismiss but, as soon as one job disappears, another one arrives. Can’t you f***ing let me deliver this guy in peace, or at least get a couple of minutes closer before I think about accepting the next one? There’s no way of turning the sound off without losing the voice prompts on which I still rely. Later, I ask Uber’s helpdesk and they confirm what I suspect. There’s no way of muting it. They want to maximise speed and efficiency at all costs. The driver and rider just have to suck up the cacophony.
The Dutchman is making a presentation to Microsoft. It’s a big day for him and I want to get him there smoothly. We’re on the Harrow Road. The app’s voice command is saying keep right and then turn right. I follow what I think it’s telling me to do, but now it’s making us go back. We’ve missed the turning. And although we try it again and take different turnings, the same thing happens. The destination is still six minutes away. The software dude is looking on his phone. He’s not annoyed, but I feel powerless. He says he can see the building; it’ll take him two minutes to walk. I let him out. My diary entry reads: “What intimidates me is not driving but following the machine’s directions, a machine I don’t always understand. Like with the Harrow Road turning this morning – I tried it three times, round and back and nothing. I was flailing. Embarrassing. Chastening.”
Cake man’s journey cost him £18.61, of which Uber takes £4.65, leaving me with £13.96. He gives a 2-quid tip, so I get £15.96. The next journey is £8.98. It’s Uber surge 1.3x, so there’s an extra £2.76. But still … Apart from raspberry picking, this is the hardest money I’ve ever made.
Five days later. It’s midnight and I’m peeing against a tree on Clapham Common. There are more complicated challenges to driving an Uber, but none so immediate or insistent as the need to pee. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, you can’t pull over. There’s either no loo, nowhere to park or a high chance of being caught on CCTV committing an antisocial act. I’ve heard a rumour about bottles of piss in London parks. The claim is that they are dumped by Uber drivers who live out of town and sleep in their cars. I have no way of knowing if it’s true. But I have more than a little sympathy. I’ve cut down on tea and water, but still it’s not easy. I do pack a bottle to pee in, but I can never quite bring myself to do it. Sitting in the front seat of a car trying to aim into a Lucozade bottle just feels all wrong. So here now, on this starless night, urinating on the dark common, the feeling is one of exquisite relief. It’s not just my bladder that’s relieved. There’s something else. I am no longer inept. I’ve done a Friday evening and am halfway through a Saturday night. And in the hurly-burly of it all – refusing the lairy lads’ can of Stella; the girl trying to stop her Aussie boyfriend being sick; the Helena Bonham Carter-type with the bald husband repeatedly calling me fertile for my rampant barnet; the tiredness; the near-miss with a pedestrian on a zebra crossing; advising the woman with the job interview on a quicker Tube route (not something the app would do); getting the girls from the pub to their Clapham Junction train in the nick of time, all while engendering a Carpenters singalong – it’s all suddenly clicked.
After the fresh air of the common, the car’s interior aroma hits me – red wine with base notes of beer and chips. This really is the night-time economy and I’m loving it. Looking back, the turning point of the whole Uber experience was a young man who, for the sake of anonymity, I’ll call Usain. A surveyor who loves movies and studied near where I grew up in the Midlands. It starts well. I phone him and help him find me amid the crowds. I cope with the route. And we have a meeting of minds. He offers his take on Uber and the ratings system with reference to an episode of Black Mirror – the one where everyone gets rated on the most minor of social interactions. Somehow, this 25-minute journey reconciles me to the fact that it’s really just people you are working with, not sat-nav or the app. And most people are decent and will overlook a few wrong turns.
Back to Saturday night. It ends with a trip from Brixton to the farthest reaches of Bromley with a cab full of mashed-up lads who demand Radio 1Xtra, fried chicken, cocaine and beer, only one of which I can provide. Even my phone battery dying doesn’t bring catastrophe – they guide me the last few miles to a large semi-detached house in a leafy street. When I finally get home at 3.20am, I ring Uber to make sure the fare is correct. The next day, I’m unable to stand up straight. My lower back is tight – I should have stretched. But I no longer feel like a fraud. I may not be the most adept follower of sat-nav, but I can work with it now. Key was avoiding Uber’s GPS. After a brief trial of Waze – clever but too busy – I opt for the simplicity of Google Maps.
There is one moment on Sunday evening where I have to laugh. I’ve collected a rider in Whitechapel, heading into the centre of town. Our route starts becoming strangely circuitous. We are literally going round in circles, with the voice instructions appearing to contradict one another. It takes me a few minutes to realise that somehow I have both Waze and Google Maps on simultaneously. In my exhausted state – this is my last trip of the day – it seems like an apposite metaphor for what’s going on in the UK. In a breach of protocol, I do once bring up Brexit with a woman passenger. It opens the floodgates. Previously not one for small talk, now she can’t stop talking. But in truth, I can’t bear the aggro most of the time.
Monday morning is my last day. The car is on a weekly rolling contract. I will take it back, because I’m realising that unless I can work six or seven days a week, this is never going to pay. I rise at 4.30am and by 5.20am have my first ride at St George’s Hospital. It’s a middle-aged man who was admitted after a panic attack. The streets are deserted and, in the hour before dawn, you can say anything to anyone about anxiety, depression and futility. It really is the comfort of strangers. I feel better as I drop him off. And I hope he does.
The app is soon beeping. I pick up a half-Danish, half-Scottish bloke going to Stansted. Bingo, my first airport job. We are quickly through the series of bridges and tunnels that you need to get onto the M11. As we’re speeding away, my rider talks about what it’s like to be almost but not quite good enough to be a professional footballer in northern Europe – his friends made it to Bayern Munich and Barcelona, but he’s now studying business. Again, it’s another connection with the world. And I can see the app clocking up the money as we hurtle through the Essex landscape. My only worry is: will I get a ride back? After dropping him, I’m advised by the app to wait in the medium stay car park. I am told I’m 21-25 in the queue. It is starting to get light, drizzle is speckling the windscreen and Herman Van Rompuy is on the Today programme talking about the withdrawal agreement. At 9.30, I’m up. More by luck than judgment, my passengers and I eventually meet. It’s three French women who missed their flight back to Nice and now need to get to Luton airport. More clear motorway, more mileage, more good money. The only fly in the ointment is the Stansted parking charge: £24. It’s not a fair deal and I don’t get anything out of the woman on the Uber helpline. “I’m very sorry, but we are in the Philippines,” she says at one point. But today was a victory – I earned £130 by lunchtime.
In all, I’ve done 30 trips. My rating is 4.73. Total fares: £381.67. I’ve driven on seven days out of the two weeks I’ve hired the car. Running costs weekly: £284.92, including airport charges, traffic fines, petrol and car rental. Set-up costs: £544.14. I get back £300 towards this for completing 20 trips.
In other words, I’ve made a loss. The real lesson is that Uber’s much trumpeted flexibility doesn’t work as a second job if you have to rent a car. I could make a profit if I drove every day, but that was never my intention.
There’s something else I’m wondering. It’s summed up by a recent Economist headline: “Can Uber ever make money?” Even with its near world domination, the company made a $1 billion loss in its first quarter since floating this year. Amazon lost bundles of money at first, but this feels different. The competition is only going to get fiercer, with Lyft and Kapten among those snapping at Uber’s heels and willing to undercut them more and more. Cui bono? Not the drivers, who have to be bribed with loyalty payments on reaching milestones such as 5,000 or 10,000 trips. Neither is it good for the environment, with solo riders finding it increasingly affordable to summon a cab – a trend starting to hit public transport revenues in the US. The consumer is the only winner, but at what cost and for how long?
Uber and its rivals may be gambling on the driverless car revolution delivering vast profits. (Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder, once said to engineers working on Google’s driverless car, “The minute your car becomes real, I can take the dude out of the front seat. I call that margin expansion.”) But that driverless future still seems five, ten, fifteen years off. My brief Uber career tells me that regulation is needed. No taxi system ever makes money in a free-for-all. A higher minimum price per mile is needed to stop this crazy loss-leading battle for supremacy. Yes, the black cabbies had their heads in the sand on apps and GPS, but in one respect they might be right: how can it be fair to be driven out of business by loss-making competitors operating with a huge Silicon Valley war chest?
I’m no business analyst, so I might be wrong about that. What I do know is what it feels like to get behind the wheel of an Uber. I wasn’t the typical Uber driver by country of origin or ethnicity; I was the only white British driver during my training sessions. But I know what it takes to do this job, and it’s no easy option. So while I question the Uber business model, I admire its drivers. This is a tough gig – often soulless, repetitive and lonely. Most of them do it better than I could and, crucially, they have more stamina – day in, day out for months and years following that little squiggle across the phone screen. At the moment, journalism has picked up and pays considerably more than driving. But there are no guarantees as a freelancer. I would go back to Uber if I had to.
Coda: months later, I receive a fine of £65 from the London Borough of Merton for stopping on a red route. Wherever you are, Pancake Man, you are my Uber nemesis. I’ve learnt my lesson. The customer isn’t always right. And to the woman behind the Jackie O shades who gave me one star – if it was you – I apologise. But lighten up and cut us some slack. We’re all trying to make a living.