Thou­sands sign up for ride-share ser­vices

The Colonial - - OPINION -

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.”

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