Uber, again

Gig economy

I’m back to driving for Uber.

It’s been a tough week driving for Lyft. I just haven’t been getting very many rides and the rides I have been getting have been low value.

Retail is fickle, and this certainly applies to the gig economy, but a lot of drivers suspect that it isn’t just that, but rather that these “mystery slowdowns” are intentional, that the companies are playing head games with their drivers.

The idea is to keep drivers hungry. In this hypothesis, the low pay isn’t just about the companies’ likely futile quests for actual profitability,[1] but a ‘Theory X’ management style[2] treatment of workers in which they can’t be allowed to feel too comfortable, feel too confident, lest they take some time off and reduce their availability for exploitation.

In California, where I focused on Marin County, where Uber had the vast majority of the business, I usually just worked for Uber. But when these “mystery slowdowns” arose, I’d switch to Lyft, which would mysteriously be busy for a while. Then when a “mystery slowdown” arose with Lyft, I’d switch back to Uber, which would remarkably be back to being busy.

If one assumes that market conditions should similarly affect Uber and Lyft, that is, that when Uber is slow, so, too, should be Lyft, and vice versa, then market conditions cannot explain my relative success when switching companies. Which in turn suggests that some form of dispatch manipulation is occurring.

In Pittsburgh, around the time of Uber’s initial public offering, they got weird about paying me. Payment arrangements that had worked for months suddenly stopped working. They had given out a lot of free rides and I had, they said, unknowingly taken too many of those free rides (for which I was still owed money), so they cut me off from instant pay. The banking details for the weekly payout, the same details that had worked before, were suddenly wrong. They were, I surmised, attempting to boost their cash flow for their IPO at my expense. But whatever the reason, getting weird about paying is a huge red flag for me. So I cut them off.

The trouble is that Lyft also plays head games. I suspect that some of the complaints they said passengers had made about my driving were simply made up. Citing privacy concerns, they never inform me of these complaints with any detail even though I have repeatedly explained to them that credible complaints are specific and detailed. Sometimes these complaints are completely at odds with how I drive, even in Pittsburgh,[3] and so I doubt their provenance.

And then there are the “mystery slowdowns.” I haven’t even the beginnings of a means to determine whether these are in fact the results of dispatch manipulation. But I can’t help but be suspicious.

I don’t like head games anyway. People who know me know that, in fact, I respond very poorly to them and that, in fact, one reason I have all but given up on ever finding a real job is that, after eighteen years of futility,[4] I have come to feel that the application process is little more than a head game. It’s best to be straight with me and if you don’t feel that’s how you can get what you want from me, then I don’t want to be dealing with you. I have severed relationships over this in the past and fully expect to do so in the future.

And here I am with a “mystery slowdown” with Lyft. So I’m back trying Uber. It sucks but a real job doesn’t seem to be an option for me.[5]


William Booth and Karla Adam, “Parliament votes to withhold approval of Brexit deal, postponing Boris Johnson’s moment of reckoning,” Washington Post, October 19, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/boris-johnson-faces-historic-brexit-vote-in-parliament/2019/10/19/dba7cc70-f1a8-11e9-bb7e-d2026ee0c199_story.html

  1. [1]Rich Alton, “Basic economics means Uber and Lyft can’t rely on driverless cars to become profitable,” MarketWatch, August 12, 2019, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/basic-economics-means-uber-and-lyft-cant-rely-on-driverless-cars-to-become-profitable-2019-08-12; Eliot Brown, “Uber Wants to Be the Uber of Everything—But Can It Make a Profit?” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-wants-to-be-the-uber-of-everything-11556909866; Richard Durant, “Uber’s Profitability Problem Is Structural,” Seeking Alpha, August 21, 2019, https://seekingalpha.com/article/4287055-ubers-profitability-problem-structural; Ryan Felton, “Uber Is Doomed,” Jalopnik, February 24, 2017, https://jalopnik.com/uber-is-doomed-1792634203; Yves Smith, “Uber Is Headed for a Crash,” New York, December 4, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/will-uber-survive-the-next-decade.html; Stephen Wilmot, “Uber’s Long Road to Profits,” Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ubers-long-road-to-profits-11566471068; Julia Carrie Wong, “Disgruntled drivers and ‘cultural challenges’: Uber admits to its biggest risk factors,” Guardian, April 12, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/apr/11/uber-ipo-risk-factors
  2. [2]In contrast to ‘Theory Y,’ in which workers are presumed to care about their work and are treated as having valuable insight that should be taken into account in making management decisions, should be treated as well as conditions of competition permit, and in which companies have responsibilities not merely to shareholders but to stakeholders and the environment. More familiar to many workers is ‘Theory X,’ which presumes that workers are, at best, indifferent to their work (Karl Marx’s theory of alienated labor in “Estranged Labor,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 29-33, comes to mind), that management is the sole source of expertise in how work should be done, and that workers respond only to reward and punishment. Theory X seems to prevail even in organizations that profitably experiment with Theory Y. See Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years (Ventura, CA: Patagonia, 2012); Chip Conley, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007); Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000); Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008); Carol Sanford, The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011); Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).
  3. [3]The driving situation in Pittsburgh is very different from California, and legitimately, the most difficult I have ever encountered. See David Benfell, “Pittsburgh driving for the uninitiated,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d., https://disunitedstates.com/pittsburgh-driving-for-the-uninitiated/
  4. [4]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/
  5. [5]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/

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