Risky Business: What Does It Take to Make a Living as a Rideshare Driver?

By: Bridget Clerkin February 6, 2018
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You’re a full-time Uber driver with a $1,000 mortgage payment due and two children at home to support. Can you earn enough to pay the bills, all while maintaining a social life, keeping up your physical health, and occasionally spending some time with your young family?

Such mature melodramas may seem mundane, but they’re the catalysts behind a new virtual game of sorts, where players are challenged to survive a week in the gig economy.

Rather unimaginatively coined “The Uber Game,” the online experience is actually based on the reality of many drivers, from choosing between stifling traffic and tempting surge prices, to pushing longer hours for a chance at special bonuses, to dealing with unruly passengers while still hoping for tips.

The gig economy is unquestionably on the rise, and perhaps no other part-time profession encapsulates its highs and lows better than that of rideshare driver.

But for real-life players of The Uber Game, there is no “easy” mode.

Get What You Pay For

The Uber Game gives the good news first: At the experiment’s end, it tallies up the week’s net profit, likely leaving many players feeling proud for reaching their $1,000 goal.

Then the deductions start. And they keep on going. And going.

Still, for drivers bringing their own vehicles to the gig, mileage and maintenance become expensive problems that may linger far longer than their rideshare tenure.

The list of expenses is no less lengthy in real life, with the challenge of managing such up-front costs most prominent for full-time drivers, who have no other income sources to cover the charges.

Many who drive for Uber choose to lease a car through the company, with that payment often making the deepest financial cut. (Uber recently sold its leasing portfolio, reportedly responsible for more than 30,000 cars and worth somewhere near $400 million.)

The company’s deal is unique on several fronts: Contracts last five years—although they can be broken, penalty-free, with just two weeks’ notice—and there are no restrictions on mileage, said San Diego-based Uber driver Tomas Hicks. But the payment is taken directly from a driver’s paycheck, at a fixed rate on a weekly basis. (It’s unclear whether those parameters will change under new ownership.)

While the deal can be made with low money down, the weekly bill can be expensive. For Hicks, it came out to $160 per week, which was enough to push him toward other options. He now drives a car he purchased outright for the job.

“I have the car payment now instead of the lease payment, but it’s actually cheaper,” Hicks said. “And at least it will be my car when it’s done.”

Still, for drivers bringing their own vehicles to the gig, mileage and maintenance become expensive problems that may linger far longer than their rideshare tenure. Gas prices also take a large bite out of take-home pay, with even hybrids racking up large bills in the volume business.

And that’s to say nothing of the litany of less-expensive recurring costs, which add up quickly.

Aside from the car, the technology allowing drivers to interface with their passengers is the most paramount concern.

“You have to have a good phone and you have to have a good plan,” Hicks said. “You don’t want to be working and run out of data.”

He mentioned a bevy of other bills, including the mini-waters and mints he carries for riders. Phone chargers Hicks provides for his passengers—one each for iPhone and Android—also factor into monthly expenses, as the wires tend to get lost, damaged, or accidentally taken.

Cleaning supplies are another hefty cost, but even the most well-armed driver is no match for the nightmare scenario of a nauseous passenger. Uber will charge riders for any cleaning bills should the worst occur and the incident get reported, but for drivers, “that’s it, your night is over,” Hicks said. “You’re not getting anyone in your car after that.”

Still, Uber offers drivers some reimbursement for the supplies needed to clean up vomit—compensation which often doesn’t amount to much.

A Numbers Game

Uber drivers get paid for mileage and not time, so the decision to take a fare can depend on traffic, duration, and location.

The job takes its toll in other ways, too, with the pressure and anxiety it can create marking the biggest hidden cost.

“Sometimes, you don’t make as much money as you’re supposed to,” said San Diego Lyft driver Yarell Jaime. “When I drove full-time, I had to just keep going. What else could I do? I needed the money.”

She’s since cut her time driving back to around 20 hours a week in order to focus on her budding career as a chef. While the kitchen makes for a much more stressful atmosphere than the driver’s seat, there’s still plenty for rideshare drivers to worry about, Jaime said.

Hours aren’t prescribed, but workers must choose them wisely or face the consequences of losing precious time.

“If it’s a busy day, and you’re getting ride after ride, it’s okay,” Hicks said. “But if you’re just sitting there somewhere and waiting and hoping it’s going to be good, you start to get anxious. You’re putting your time in and you’re not getting anything out of it.”

Due to an irregular schedule at his primary job, Hicks vacillates between full-time and part-time work for Uber. When he’s working full-time, he said, it can take anywhere between 50-60 hours of driving per week to stay ahead of his bills.

The fluctuation is due largely in part to the sheer randomness at the heart of the market. While gambling on rush hours, late nights, and weekends is often effective, success is still not a sure bet.

“Sometimes you have a Tuesday where you’re getting rides non-stop,” Hicks said. “Sometimes you have a Friday where you pick up maybe three people.”

Many drivers develop strategies to work around this inherent uncertainty. San Diego Lyft driver Robert Alcala uses “surge pricing”—the increased fare used at times of particularly high demand—not just as a vehicle for more lucrative trips, but as a North Star.

“You have to position yourself to the ebb and flow of people,” he said. “If you go where there’s the highest demand, you’ll be able to best leverage your time.”

Still, Uber and Lyft both pay by the mile—not the time spent on each trip—and surge pricing can be an indicator of serious traffic. And an increasing amount of that traffic may be coming from rideshare drivers themselves, with companies allowing driver participation to grow unchecked, its effect on supply and demand in the rideshare market has been largely unaddressed.

For Hicks, the slower pace isn’t worth the reduced income. Instead, he often shoots for accruing a larger number of shorter trips at the peripheries of the congested hours.

“Uber doesn’t care how many drivers they have, because they’re getting their cut regardless,” Hicks said. “To them, it doesn’t matter if there’s 10 people fighting over the same ride or five, but to drivers, it means driving more hours to make the same amount of money.”

The Gig Is Up

Yet, as both major rideshare companies so frequently remind their contractors, there is no required number of hours to drive. Indeed, the allure of an entirely autonomous schedule is undoubtedly one of the industry’s most powerful recruiting tools.

In America, nearly 35% of the working population—or 55 million people—reported taking on some form of freelance work in 2016.

Asserting independence over when and how much she drove is what allowed Jaime, the aspiring chef, to quit one of the two restaurant jobs she once held simultaneously. Hicks utilizes the freeform scheduling to tailor-fit the lulls and surges in his other line of work, and Alcala also drives for Lyft at his leisure to supplement income.

The freedom and flexibility afforded by the gig economy is coveted by many, but the lifestyle isn’t for everyone. It requires incredible amounts of hustle and discipline. Freedom is never free, after all.

But that hasn’t stopped the elusive idea from gaining popularity. In America alone, nearly 35% of the working population—or 55 million people—reported taking on some form of freelance work in 2016, an upward swing of 2 million from 2014. Desire for that type of work also increased over the same time period, with 63% of respondents saying the move was intentional, up from 53%.

While those armed with clear eyes and expectations may thrive on the style, it seems it’s increasingly being forced upon people.

A 2016 report by research firm McKinsey Global Institute found that up to 162 million people across Europe and the United States engage in some form of freelance work. All told, the number represents 30% of the working-age population of the areas.

But as many as 23 million respondents said they took on the work reluctantly, despite earning their entire income from cobbling together various gigs, and 26 million reported they were too cash-strapped to have a choice in the matter, pursuing freelance side-jobs out of financial necessity.

And without careful planning and attention to detail, the contractor life can be filled with potential pitfalls. Taxes are exceedingly trickier to file—and far more expensive; there is no pension or retirement plan to speak of; health care is not a given; and even landing the next gig isn’t guaranteed.

In a society where living paycheck to paycheck is already a struggle for many, what’s the true cost of disrupting that rhythm?

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