San Francisco’s war on Uber and Lyft drivers

I got started driving for a living in the wake of a relationship that ended with her leaving for a mental hospital in Washington. That wasn’t entirely my fault.

But a lesson I drew from that experience was that, while there certainly had been problems with the relationship, which were certainly compounded by her depression, graveyard shift had made everything else worse.

When I left school the first time, with an Associates degree in Business Data Processing, I was a computer programmer. But what I didn’t realize at the time—or really even for many years afterward—was that this was the wrong career for me. It requires an intensely sequential and binary way of thinking to organize tasks to be performed by the computer, a way of thinking that I could sustain only at great personal cost. And by 1985, I had, in fact, burned out.

Which was the real reason I left the last computer programming job I had. Though I thought it was because I was stuck in a little town about fifteen miles south of Fresno where life ended in a high school I’d never attended and because business programming really and profoundly wasn’t what drew me to programming in the first place.

I had left Selma (that little town) and returned to the San Francisco Bay Area thinking I ought to be able to land another programming job. But in fact I only got one interview, which wore me down by about the time I got to the third interviewer, and I didn’t get the job.

I eventually ended up as a computer operator at San Francisco General Hospital, working the graveyard shift and while I had taken a distinct step downwards in status, I was getting paid more than I ever had before. And I met a woman I almost married. Which brings me back to the beginning of this post.

So I left the computer operator gig, for a number of reasons—or rationalizations—including the realization that being there for work on a graveyard shift 1) meant I couldn’t be present in the way that I wanted to be for a relationship; and 2) meant that with my skills with those particular systems that I had specialized in as a programmer, I was propping up a situation with systems that were obsolete and that I was thus enabling a seriously suboptimal situation to persist. Also, 3) I had an expectation that I’d be picked up for another job within San Francisco’s Department of Public Health that might actually help my computer career.

When that expectation did not materialize, I responded to an ad for airport shuttle drivers. It promised $100 per day in earnings, which I figured should easily pay rent (this was in 1990).

It didn’t work out as promised. I had a lot to learn about the people transportation business, including about the corruption that largely separates successful drivers from unsuccessful drivers, and including that at an even more elemental level, as a driver, everyone has their hand out to you. And you’re supposed to “grease their palms,” as one taxi manager so ingloriously explained it to me. And if you don’t grease their palms, you’ll get burned.

And it isn’t just dispatchers and hotel doorkeepers. The company wants a big chunk of money for leasing you a vehicle. Gasoline must be bought for those vehicles. Sometimes there are bridge tolls. More recently, there are fingerprints, background checks, and permits. You pay and pay and pay and pay.

And you aren’t making that much. You really never are.

But taxi driving isn’t a career many people aspire to. More likely, if you’re a taxi driver, it’s the only job you can get. Because in the gutter of the neoliberal world, you so exemplify the infinitely replaceable worker that companies rarely bother with much of a screening. And because they see you as a customer rather than as an employee—they’re renting you (typically) a ten-hour shift in a car with maintenance and insurance covered and with a dispatch service, and they’re pretty much happy to keep renting those shifts to you as long as you’re able to pay—they really don’t care much about how well you do the job of picking people up and getting them where they’re going or about how much money you actually make after all those costs.

Uber and Lyft are the 21st-century variant on taxis. Now, to drive for these companies, you supply—and put at risk—your own car. The business model is a little better in that you pay these companies a percentage commission rather than a fixed lease fee (the “gate”), because there’s no facility for the corruption that bedevils cab companies, and because of a dispatch system that is light years beyond anything cab companies ever dreamed of.

But important aspects are the same: Drivers are mostly working poor folks, struggling to pay bills, sometimes trying to feed their families. They remain infinitely replaceable. They are considered ‘independent contractors’ rather than employees. And they are paid almost nothing for the time they spend and the costs they bear.

So it’s a little distressing to learn that San Francisco Police reported that, from April 1 through June 30 (presumably this year, in 2017),

Of drivers found illegally driving in transit-only lanes, 1,144 out of 1,715 were ride-hail drivers. Additionally, 183 out of 239 tickets issued for drivers obstructing a lane of traffic, or a bike lane, were issued to Uber and Lyft drivers. Ride-hail drivers also were cited more than other drivers for making U-Turns in a business district, 42 times out of a total 57.

Uber and Lyft drivers were also cited for driving in bike lanes and obstructing bike lanes, and committed “other transit violations” far more often than other drivers.

All told, out of 2,656 traffic violations total, 1,723 citations were of a ride-hail vehicles, according to the SFPD.[1]

Yes, people who drive for a living are under pressure to take short-cuts that aren’t always legal. And sometimes there is no legal solution available for the problems these folks encounter. But issuing moving violations to Uber, Lyft, or taxi drivers is a lot like issuing parking tickets to delivery drivers: You’re punishing people trying to do jobs that pay poorly and are often the only jobs they can get. It is—flatly—an attack on the poor.

That’s not to say that Uber, Lyft, and taxi drivers should be immune. But San Francisco blames Uber and Lyft drivers for traffic problems[2] that in fact predate those companies’ existences by decades. Which raises a suspicion that these drivers are being targeted and scapegoated.

Do such targeting efforts occur? Yes, absolutely. While I was driving for Uber and Lyft, I received an order to pick up some young women at a movie theater. This, for all practical purposes, required me to pull into a bus stop to pick up the riders. As I did so, I noticed what could be a city truck parked with a man and a clipboard at its back.

And sure enough, a few weeks later, I received a nice little $300 parking ticket in the mail for, if I remember correctly, a $6 ride. It was accompanied by a letter explaining that the driver had pulled away before the ticket could be affixed. This was bullshit because the man made no attempt to actually hand me the ticket or put it on my windshield. Nor was he furiously scribbling out a ticket at the time; I saw him make what appeared to be a single mark on his clipboard. The ticket itself was pristine, rather unlikely to have actually been one of many written on the scene.

So I believe he was just taking pictures or perhaps just running a video camera of violating drivers, who would, of course, mostly be Uber, Lyft, and (probably) taxi drivers. He then returned to an office, sat down at a table, wrote out a citation for each violator, and stuck it in the mail.

That city employee makes a lot more money than any Uber, Lyft, or taxi driver. He has access to health insurance and a retirement plan that are the envy of any worker in the ‘gig’ economy. He didn’t even have to set up a ‘sting.’ The location was a multiplex movie theater on Van Ness. The theater would disgorge patrons at frequent intervals (from multiple showings of multiple movies), the patrons would call for rides, and he probably got to write at least a dozen or so tickets each time a show let out.

San Francisco has monumental traffic and parking problems, which were supposed to be addressed first by the Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT) and now by the Municipal Transit Agency (MTA). These problems have only gotten worse and it is blindingly obvious that the agencies have done everything in their power to make them worse.

For example, Van Ness, where I earned that ticket, used to have three lanes of travel in each direction. Two of the lanes (the left-most one in each direction) are now closed for construction of a bus-only corridor. The street is part of U.S. Highway 101 and has had heavy traffic for as long as I can remember. The closure makes things a lot worse as now all traffic, cars and buses alike, share only two lanes in each direction.

I understand a political agenda against cars: Even electric cars are resource hogs. Cars generally are bad for the environment and efforts to accommodate more traffic with road improvements seem to yield only more cars. People should be encouraged to get out of their cars and use public transit.

But folks like me need jobs. And the politicians who push that agenda are doing absolutely nothing to help with jobs or to improve working conditions for drivers. Which is to make ride-sharing drivers into scapegoats.

But I guess politicians think drivers can afford it.

  1. [1]Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, “SFPD: Uber, Lyft account for two-thirds of congestion-related traffic violations downtown,” San Francisco Examiner, September 25, 2017, http://www.sfexaminer.com/sfpd-uber-lyft-account-two-thirds-congestion-related-traffic-violations-downtown/
  2. [2]Katie Dowd, “Why is San Francisco traffic so bad? Uber and Lyft are to blame, says city,” SFGate, December 13, 2016, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/San-Francisco-traffic-Uber-Lyft-SFMTA-blame-10791265.php

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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