Interview with an Uber Driver
Manchester 19th February 2016
Muhammad used to be a driver of a standard taxi and then Uber came along. I managed to get half an hour of his time whilst traveling to Manchester airport at 5am in the morning. I hadn't arranged a taxi the night before and needed to be at the airport early for a flight so it was important that I wasn’t late but knowing how good the Uber service has become in major cities like Manchester, it didn't really give me much of a concern.
I woke up early and turned on the App, as expected there were quite a few Uber’s available within a 5-10 minute period, so I got dressed and then sent in my request. The App showed me exactly where my driver was and how long the car would take to get to me, I didn't need to rush outside, I simply took my time, finished my cup of tea and kept eye on the app as the Uber got closer and closer. When it was a couple of minutes away I made my way downstairs to wait outside.
I noticed a normal taxi sat across the road clearly waiting for someone, I knew it wasn't for me as Uber tells me the type of car, the registration number, the drivers name and a picture of his face. I suddenly panicked that the friend who I had been staying with had ordered a taxi without telling me. The driver looked over and didn't seem too happy, it looked like he had been waiting for some time, he called over and asked me if I was Benjamin, I explained that wasn’t my name and I hadn't ordered a taxi.
I did feel little sorry for the taxi driver as it can’t be fun waiting around for someone that time in the morning, he couldn't even blow his horn or knock on the door as it was a block of flats with a security gate. I felt even more sorry for him as I was literally waiting for less than a minute and my Uber pulled up, I jumped in the car and off we went, leaving the taxi driver looking on with rather disgruntled face. I have no idea how long he continued to wait after I left.
I guess the taxi driver has the opportunity to become an Uber driver if he should so wish. I turned to the Uber driver and made mention of what had just happened and he said that he used to be a normal taxi driver himself but hasn't looked back since driving for Uber. I asked him why Uber was such an improvement for him….
“Firstly the customers are better” he said with a smile “and I don’t have to carry cash, its all done by the bank so there’s less chance of being robbed. I don't have to have an argument about how much the customer is being charged, its all done by the App. I also don't have to have an argument about the customer not having enough money to pay when I get them to the destination. If the customer wants to finish the trip he just asks me to stop and gets out”.
Muhammad goes on to tell me that if the customer does get out of the car the card is simply charged for the journey that he has taken, the driver doesn't have to get into any kind of dispute about it. The other advantage is that all the risk is on Uber, if the card being used fails to authorise, if it was fraud, Uber takes the hit not the driver, the driver always gets paid, it's not the drivers concern.
“Within 5 - 10 minutes of the journey ending Uber will inform me through the App how much I am being paid. Uber takes 20% of the fare, I take the rest”
I ask him how that compares to what he was paid when he was working for a normal taxi firm…
“It's around the same but the fare is slightly less for the customer”
So surely, this will put normal taxi firms out of business, everyone will simply move over to Uber?
“I don’t think so, some people just want to pay cash and some people want a normal taxi. Normal taxi firms are still busy, they have lost some business but not all of the business. In London the black cabs have lost a lot but many of them don't take credit cards and those that do charge extra for credit cards so people don't like to use them. The black cabs can come back if they reduce their fares, it's up to them really but they do need to reduce their fares”
So what do the normal taxi firms think to Uber?
“To be honest with you I don’t think normal taxi firms are upset with Uber but black cabs, they are upset with us. When in town the normal taxi drivers will still give us a wave but black cabs, they won’t, they will probably wave two fingers” He laughs “The black cabs will even put a sign in the back window saying ‘Uber is not a taxi’ but all they are doing to giving people a message to use Uber”
It's a fact, they are advertising for Uber so it seems a but silly really. To my amazement the driver hadn't heard about the London black cabs going out onto the roads of London demonstrating against Uber, blocking the whole road system. I can only imagine it annoyed and alienated a lot of London commuters, it ended up on the national news, on national television at prime time and was reported in most of the national newspapers and on the front page of all the free London newspapers given away on the public transport network.
It was amazing free advertising, the Black cabs were doing all the work for Uber. Can you imagine how much it would cost to advertise your company on prime television, peak viewing, for free?
Muhammad laughs again… “They're crazy, I had two students in my car earlier today, they were from Hong Kong, they were laughing telling me that they saw Uber being advertised in the windows of a black cab, they couldn't believe it.” He continues…. “I have a friend who went to London a few years ago, he recently came back to Manchester and I was chatting with him about Taxi’s in London and Uber, he said that he never uses a Taxi in London now, only ever Uber and this is pretty much the same for everyone he knows”
I have to admit that I myself have stopped using the Black Cabs, I generally don't have cash, the Uber will charge my business debit card and the invoice for the trip is emailed to my laptop, for accounting purposes it is much easier and I’m not messing around with hand written receipts which usually get lost. Also, I can usually get a nice Mercedes for the same price as a black cab or less, the car pulls up outside my meeting and off I go without any hassle of standing on the street, waiting, waiving as numerous taxi's pass me by. I’ve even had black cabs stop and ask me where I’m going, when i tell them they say 'sorry' and drive off. I mean, you can see why people have made the switch.
There were no executive vehicles available this morning is that just because of the time of day?
“Yes, there are a lot of ‘Exec’ vehicles in Manchester, it’s just because of the time of the day”
And what is availability like generally, is it normally easy get an Uber?
“Yes, there's normally no problem. It's just at this time of the day we are changing between people coming off nights and people coming onto the day shift. I started at 9.30pm last night and I am working until around 6.30am, new drivers will becoming on usually around 6am and then it will start to get busy for people going to the office”
So you worked 9 hours last night, is that normal, is there any law in the UK which dictates how long you can work for like a lorry driver can only drive for a certain amount of time, I mean it must be tempting to just keep going if your making money?
“Sometimes I work 12 hours but it's a long time without resting, not eating properly. In the UK I think the law is 13 hours but it would be very hard to do all the time, I mean I have done it a few times but you are so tired the next day it's not really possible to do it again”
I assume Uber would stop you anyway, I mean they know how long you have been working don’t they from the App, would they stop you from going over the 13 hour limit?
“I don’t think so, when I completed my 13 hour shift I received the message when I logged off from Uber telling me ‘thank you for your service, we hope to see you again tonight’ I think if you were continually doing 15 or 16 hour shifts they would probably say something but it's difficult because you could log off for a rest during your shift and log back on again so it's really down to you as the driver”
So other than breaks which you may take for food or perhaps the toilet do you generally get long breaks between passengers or do you go from job to job?
“Sometimes there can be a short break, at weekends, on Friday and Saturday when its really busy you don't get chance to have a break.”
And when your not on a job you just park up somewhere and wait for the next job?
“Yes, just find somewhere to wait safely, at the weekend we would make our way back into town where it is more busy”
So how does Uber charge the passenger, is it by the distance or by time?
“They charge by the mile. Before I even picked you up Uber told me how long the journey was going to take. So there is an estimated time but obviously that depends on traffic. The estimate you are given is based upon the distance. If there is a hold up with the traffic and it takes a little longer Uber doesn't really mind but if it gets to 10 minutes then they will add a surcharge. The App does take into account traffic conditions when it calculates how long the journey should take but obviously there could be problems along the way, like an accident.”
Muhammad tells me that the surcharge would be £1.20 for an extra 10 minutes. The standard rate is £3 for the first mile and then £1.50. The taxi firm he used to work for 'City Cars' would have charged £2.00 per mile so it is quite a bit cheaper.
“Just be careful when you order the Uber to make sure there is not a surcharge being applied, this happens when it is really busy but the App does tell you. Usually if you wait 10 minutes the surcharge will go away”
Muhammad turns to his iPhone which is placed on the windscreen running the Uber App. He shows me that in the center of Manchester there is currently a surcharge because there are not many cars available and the demand is high.
“This won't stay for long because all the other Uber drivers in the surrounding area see the surcharge is being applied, so they drive to that area so they can pick up fares and as more cars arrive, the surcharge disappears”
This is excellent, not just for the drivers who can ensure they always have work but also for the customers as it means there are always cars available and usually without the surcharge. If there are 10 people waiting for a car the surcharge is high but as more cars turn up, the surcharge drops until it disappears.
“Two years ago at Christmas one customer told me they paid 12 times as much for a car because it was so busy and there was no availability but now there are so many drivers joining Uber this doesn't really happen, the surcharge will apply for a short period and then go away”
I hadn't realised but we had been sat outside the airport chatting for 3 or 4 minutes but I had enjoyed hearing about the life of an Uber driver, I can see now why so many people have switched over to them. There are always two sides to a story though and there has been some negative pres recently, I guess you can please everyone all of the time. We would be extremely pleased to hear from anyone who has had an experience with Uber (good or bad) and also interested to hear from a black cab driver to hear what they have to say on the subject. Please click on the Comments link below to leave your comments or read the comments of other people.