Ideas

Behind The Wheel With A Straight-Talking Uber Driver

The good, the bad, and the bizarre. Part-time Uber operator Andrej Mrevlje offers an honest, intimate take on what it's like to work with the controversial ride-sharing platform.

Ubering in D.C.

WASHINGTON D.C. I have been an Uber driver for a few months now. As a rule, I don't drive more than three days a week, for three to four hours a day. If you want to hire me, my Uber app will show you that my rating is 4.82, which puts me in the 90th percentile of five-star Uber drivers.

But that figure doesn't mean much; the hard-earned rating can be turned into dust with one rider's negative evaluation. When a driver's ratings reach the red line — meaning an intolerable 4.6 Uber starts monitoring the driver, and they can easily be "deactivated," the Uber term for being fired. How can one slip from high to low in an instant? It happened to me one lovely spring morning when exploring a new, off-track neighborhood.

I don't remember her name, but she was an Asian lady, and her name was western. As soon as she sat in the car, I knew that it was not going to end well. "Why are you going straight? You should turn right," she ordered as soon as we started our trip. I was only into the second week of my driving, and a ride from Washington D.C."s NW area across the river into the forest-like Virginia countryside, tangled by highways, is different from merely crossing a neighborhood. And the lady passenger, sitting comfortably in the back seat of my car, was enjoying her controlling position.

As an Uber driver, you only have one option: You either know the city like the back of your hand, or you follow the instructions on the navigation app. There is no middle way. It doesn't work to combine the two while driving. Our brain is too slow or the terrain blends poorly with the virtual reality of the app, though it must be different for an observer, as the lady presently behind my back, who knew the road very well and was comparing it with the app on her smartphone. And loving it. So when I took a link road that was supposed to get us on the bridge and then on the other side of Potomac River, into Virginia, I found myself in front of a barrier, with the sign that read, "Closed Road."

"They closed it today?" I asked myself. The lady read my mind: "They close it every day at this hour in the morning," she said knowledgeably. Moron! Great, I thought. "Any other surprises?" I asked as I made a U-turn, looking for an alternative road. "No, you're fine," she said, probably enjoying my account profile.

Someone looking for an Uber

Photo: Mark Warner

There were a couple more little corrections from my passenger, disputing the navigation app I was using. I don't mind when views are shared and debated, but snappy orders make me nervous, mainly because I did not know how reliable they were. The lady was using her daily experience with the road, which clashed with my app. She was testing me, but was it me who would fail, or my app?

We got on the same page as we drove down I-66 for a few miles. Then, out of the blue, she ordered me: "Take this exit. I am taking over from here!" We went off the charts, strayed from the planned, requested destination. She gave Uber a virtual address. Uber's computer system must have gone crazy when we veered from the planned direction and turned onto a smaller road that leads us through a forest. When we arrived at the guarded gate, I could not resist asking where we were. "A government facility," my passenger answered sharply. "Drive to the gate and say to the guard, "it's a drop-off,"" she instructed me.

I did. One hundred yards later, within the gate, my long desired drop-off happened. But before I was finally free, I had to ask: "How do I get out of here?" There were only a one-way road and another guarded gate in front of the car. "Drive straight, then make a U-turn." I did, but the four guards with their heavy machine guns looked at me as I fell from the Moon.

"I just want to turn around and get out of here," I explained to the stern faces dressed in black, lifting their guns slightly. The U-turn was right next to them. I could not see it, terrorized as I was by the situation. When I was finally free, I did not turn back or try to remember the location; I wanted to forget the place as soon as possible. Then the app called me with a one-star evaluation. And since I was a beginner, my average rating fell from 5 to 4.67. I went straight home, took a shower, and an hour later went back on the road, trying to understand what happened.

A pawn of the platform

Driving for Uber is about figuring out the function of the platform, the population of riders, their characters and behavior. When taking an Uber, millennials, for example, are typically glued to their smartphones and their ears are covered with headphones. They want you to be efficient, silent. Drive. Don't bother me. Just get me there. I don't care how much I pay.

Considering that an Uber driver never knows the estimated charge Uber signals to the riders before they hop in your car, the rider and drivers are on different planets from the very start of the ride. The same goes for when riders request the Pool or Express Pool. While it is useful and substantially cheaper for the riders to share an Uber, dividing the cost of the ride, the driver doesn't know the destinations and the number of passengers beforehand. Once you accept the rider of a Pool ride, you will be circulating in the area until your car is filled with other poolers. With everybody on board, the driver then has to follow Uber's instructions for the driving destination and chronological order of drop-offs. This is a time when you have no control whatsoever over where you are driving, or who is getting off first. You become an impure machine, navigated by the Uber computer platform.

Sometimes, Uber turns you into a public bus. It happened to me once, when I dropped two of the four passengers off, and the Uber app called in to inform me of the addition of new passengers nearby. You have to pick them up first before dropping the others.

Uber allows you to ride 12-hours a day, but I do not see how one could do this.

In this case, the late-comers were sweet, kind passengers. I picked them up in front of a Giant supermarket, where an old man with his caregiver had done the weekly shopping. They had a full load of plastic bags and the car transformed into a food bazaar, smelling of groceries. The much younger passengers rolled their eyes, and I witnessed some of the useful social work that Uber does. For example, when the Express pool allowed a very poor or young person to schlepp himself from south to north Washington DC for a few dollars.

It pleased me to think of this accessibility, happy even, if not for the very poor pay the drivers get on the end of what usually is a long drive, consisting of racial, generational, and social tensions. How does one deal with this? How can a driver handle this kind of situation within his car and pay attention to the road? Uber expects his partner drivers to entertain the riders on top of this. What kind of music do you put on, when your car is full of Brooklyn designers and a couple of very young and intimidated Japanese tourists?

In my weeks of driving, I accumulated some experience. My first rule is not to get on the road if you are in a bad mood, just as one cannot go to a gym when he does not feel his body can make it. Driving Uber is kind of a gym, an exercise that makes you do something that, at least in my case, you don't regularly do. Uber allows you to ride 12-hours a day, but I do not see how one could do this, be safe, and be pleasant at the same time.

Also, for the above reasons, I do not favor pool driving, but occasionally I do it because it makes you feel you're volunteering for a good cause. It's not about the money, forget about that. Still, I think Uber should not force drivers — as it does in some US cities — to accept pool rides.

A peek behind the curtain

Still — and I will write more about it some other time — Uber is impressive, at least in D.C. Drivers included. There are very few of those preposterous black SUV drivers. In D.C., the majority of Uber drivers are regular people, like retired professors or people who drive from Baltimore for their jobs in D.C. and who drive Uber to cover some of the expenses or pay their mortgage.

It's also true that there are Uber riders who need transport in specific areas and at times not covered by public transportation. I find this the most rewarding part of Uber: connecting the individual dots, getting them from isolated places closer to the areas that can give them a chance to earn for their lives. There is no state, no government that could organize public transport in such a capilar way as this well-organized platform.

My first rule is not to get on the road if you are in a bad mood.

I find this exciting and, it seems to me, at least, that many people are starting to leave their cars at home now that they can take an Uber from place to place. Ubers are even dropping people off at undisclosed government facilities. I hear hedge fund managers discussing billions in my car while their three, four vehicles are left behind, parked in front of their extravagant country house. If you find yourself around 6 a.m. nearby one of the big hospitals in D.C., you may spend a couple of hours driving the nurses who work crazy hours in emergency rooms. And while hedge fund guys are stressed and blaring on their phones the whole trip long, the early riser — or as I call them, the first responders — don't utter a word. These people are tired, and they need time and light to wake up.

What intrigues me entirely are the social grids that determine the logistical, the transport and communications among the different segments of the population. If I, as an Uber driver, position myself in one neighborhood, it is very much plausible that for a couple of hours I will be circulating within that social strata. It is likely that if on the first ride, depending on the time of the day, I take someone down to Foggy Bottom, where the State Department is, then I can be almost sure that I will stay in that area of the city for a while and circulate within the circles of government people. Likewise, if your first drive brings you somewhere around Arlington, you will most likely gravitate deeper into Virginia, until you get on the highway or turn your app off to be able to return to the city.

It's the diversity that makes Uber exciting and stimulating. It's getting to know the people and their stories — why did that Greek woman marry a Vietnamese guy? — that makes you love this city, this drive, and this life.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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