Thousands sign up for ride-share services
A recent day-long circumnavigation of Washington via UberX — 10 hours of hopscotching the region with 10 drivers, all whom responded randomly to calls on the app, plus a few earlier reconnaissance rides — opened up a windshield view into the pleasures and pitfalls of turning the family ride into a profit center.
The driver corps of UberX included an aspiring respiratory therapist, an accounting student, an official at a Washington university, anArmy Reservist who works for a federal agency, a drugstore clerk, an economist and a foreign language teacher. The sample looked much like the region’s traditional corps of taxi drivers: mostly men, mostly foreign born.
“Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East have been the early adopters,” said Zuhairah Washington, manager of Uber’s local operations. “The marketing so far has been word of mouth.”
The service works just like Uber’s original app-based system. Auser can see how many UberX cars are in the vicinity on a dynamic map, along with an approximate response time. After someone requests a ride, the software names the driver, the type of car and an estimated arrival time. Downtown, cars arrived in five to 10 minutes, on average. In the suburbs, response times varied depending on the time of day and number of drivers in the area. In one case, it took almost 30 minutes for a car to reach Takoma Park, Md.
Ehsan Khan, who was born in Pakistan but grew up in Fairfax County, Va., was a long-haul truck driver when his father’s failing heath required him to find a job closer to home. He’d like to drive dump trucks for a construction company, but until he finds that gig, he’s picking up fares in his 2013 Camry.
The biggest challenge for Khan has been learning to please type-A Washington passengers. One rider apologized for being a self-described (unmentionable body part) even as he insisted that Khan lay on his horn and cut off other cars in their rush to Union Station. Khan’s revenge was subtle.
“I gave him one star,” Khan said, referring to the one-to-five scale that Uber drivers and passengers use to rate each other at the end of every ride. Riders see a driver’s score when they call for a car; drivers can use the scale to avoid rude riders.
“If you see a rating of 3.2, 3.4, you know there is something going on with that customer,” said Michael Belet, who put his Camry into service after years driving a taxi in Montgomery County, Md. His rating is 4.8.
Drivers obsess about these approval scores. Belet refuses tips, asking for a “five” rating instead. Sanjiv Kumar keeps his back seat stocked with bottles of water and copies of India Currents magazine. Ali Jaghori, a former Afghan translator who now lives in Prince William County, Va., lined the rear floorboards of his Toyota Rav4 with Oriental rugs.
If a driver’s rating dips below 4.7, Uber offers coaching on customer service or mastering the local road network. Novice navigators getting lost is a common complaint, according to drivers. If the ratings worsen, the company has been known to boot people from the system.
Eyob Tesfa, an accounting student at Strayer University who has been driving about 25 hours a week since February, tells of one friend who was cut off. “She got into an argument with a passenger, and he gave her a zero,” he said. “She was fired.”