The hidden costs, and secret miseries, of ride sharing
“I don’t want to talk about what happened. Let’s just think of something else. Anything else. And then talk about that.” My friend Vera (not her real name) was on the brink of tears yet again. I’ve known her for 11 years now, seen her suffer through a divorce, a late miscarriage, and other tragedies too private to share—but only recently have I ever seen her at a complete loss for words. Her long-time boyfriend moved out last year, which was tough but survivable. Unfortunately for her, however, when the fellow disappeared he took his half of the rent and utilities with him. She was already working 10 hours a day and raising two children. There were no easy answers to be had.
Ah, but just then a friend of hers sidled up and said, “Hey, I’ve been in this same situation, and what I did was start driving for a ride-sharing service. It’s easy and you meet fun people. All you do is just drive around a bit. Take people to bars and then take them home. It would get you out of the house. You might even meet someone.” So she filled out the forms and chose between the two available services, choosing the one that seemed friendlier, less stuck-up, more cut out for a woman in her late 30s with a decade-old SUV and a shortage of easy answers.
Those early months confirmed the truth of her friend’s predictions. She drove on the weekends, taking the beautiful people to and from the high-dollar clubs downtown. It wasn’t hard to make 20 or even 30 dollars an hour if she hustled. Her children got along well enough without her, back at home, and if she was tired most mornings she was also just a bit self-satisfied that she’d figured out a way to handle her situation without resorting to desperate measures.
The first time her SUV made a noise, she didn’t think too much about it. Then it got worse. Some kind of gnashing grind, down there beneath the seats. The fix took three days and swallowed everything she’d made in the previous weeks. She had to start heading out on the weekdays—but the majority of the customers weren’t going anywhere during daylight, or even shortly afterwards. At first she just sat in the parking lots near the downtown bars, long half-hours with the heater cranked, going without a fare while the SUV idled through gasoline at the rate of 10 bucks every 60 minutes. Then she did the sensible thing and started going to sleep after work, waking up five hours later to work the shift between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.
These were different customers, the men who hired her for Tuesday or Wednesday night bar-hopping. They reached forward to touch her, leaned in and rummaged their faces through her dark hair, commented on her scent and her makeup and the careless dishabille of her late-night sweatsuits. Some of them had to be coaxed out of the car. Others made suggestions to her, ways to call off for the evening and keep earning. As she drove away, she could see them punching her license plate into her phones. When the texts from these men became too frequent, too frightening, she bought a second phone and started using that one for ride-sharing instead. It was yet another cost, another razor-sharp knife to juggle as she paid the bills she could and ignored the ones she could not pay.
When the transmission quit, letting the engine rev helplessly without even a suggestion of forward progress, she was bewildered. The old SUV barely had 130,000 miles on it. Her friends all had the same one; they lived in the shadow of a major auto plant. Nobody else had experienced that problem. But her friends weren’t idling in parking lots or crawling through city streets an extra 120 hours a month. The repair swallowed everything she’d made in the previous month. On her way out the door, the service tech coughed nervously before calling her back.
“Your tires,” he said, with the serious face of a young man delivering deadly news, “are what we call corded, you can see the metal down there, if you look.” She did not look. Looking would have made it real. When it rained too much, she stayed at home and tried to skip dinner, sent the kids to their friends’ houses in search of a meal.
The days and nights started to feel all of one piece. She was driving more, sleeping less, catching brief blackout moments at a curbside and then waking up rabbit-startled to find a cop tapping on her window. The license plate light on her SUV kept going out.
“Vera,” the kindest of the third-shift policemen said, “your light is out again.”
“If you know it’s me, why are you bothering me about it?” He shrugged in response. It was her job to fix the light, whenever it broke, and it was his job to pull her over for not fixing it. No further explanation seemed necessary.
Two weeks ago, her SUV made a particularly frightening noise and just stopped, like a weary pack horse collapsing and dying on the Oregon trail. It was two in the morning. She sat there by the roadside for seven hours until one of her friends woke and saw her pleas for help.
The repairs were too much to contemplate. The ride-sharing service offered to rent her a car while she “worked it out.” It would cost her something north of $1000 a month, plus a three-hour round-trip to the nearest depot every week. Her first rental car would stall at lights. The ride-sharing service didn’t seem too concerned. Refused to replace it. “We have real customers using the other cars.” What was she?
Vera was now a 50-50 partner with her distant tech-company employer. She did all the work, assumed all the risk, but she wasn’t earning money until about halfway through each month. The solution was to drive more, and more. Her regular job cut her hours back, noting the dreamlike state with which she wandered through the days. This was easy to fix; she could drive more, take the low-paying fares, the suspiciously familiar names and faces who appeared on her screen again and again, the ones who would worm their shoulders into the space between the front seats and ask, “Do you have kids? Do you live alone? Who’s waiting for you, back in that little house of yours?”
It helped, sometimes, to take a moment between fares and just cry, just let the tears roll and allow the sobs to shake her chest. Vera knew the app could watch her, if the people on the other side wanted to, but she was past caring. What could they not know about her already, over hundreds, thousands of hours? What secrets could she have from these people she’d never seen and would never meet?
This past weekend, shortly after Lyft’s bubbly stock-market IPO but ahead of the battering that investors would hand the stock in its second day of trading, I convinced her to take the night off and talk to me about her options. I suggested that she quit driving, recommit to her career, and make some of those hard choices she’d used the ride-sharing gigs to avoid. Find a cheaper place to live, cut her budget, live down on the bone, the kind of advice that is trivially easy to give but which sits rough on the skin of the recipient like sackcloth or rusted steel wool.
Vera gave me a sad smile. “I don’t have… the breathing room to do those things now. I had it, before the truck broke.” Then, just for a moment, she brightened. “The tournament has really driven business. I made $350 the other night in five hours. People were tipping me 20 bucks at a time. More nights like that… I’d be fine. Just need a few more like that…” Her face crumbled. “There won’t be more nights like that,” she admitted. “It was a one-off. And the rental cars hurt my back. And even on that night, I had what I wanted to be the last fare of the night, and the guy just would not stop, you know, leaning in and touching me…”
“It’s OK,” I said, in what I hoped was a reassuring tone. “Tell me what happened.” She stared me down, the expression on her face halfway between tears and rueful laughter.
“I don’t want to talk about what happened,” she replied. “Let’s just think of something else. Anything else. And then talk about that.”