A reporter tours Detroit, one Uber ride at a time, to see what he can learn about the company and its drivers
We used to be drivers, my wife and me — your typical metro Detroit car commuters. But in 2013 we traded our Michigan driver’s licenses for California ones and the cars for bikes, good walking shoes, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s public transportation system. It worked out fine until we recently returned to Michigan.
Bumming cars off our family members grew old quickly, so we decided to exercise the Uber option and see if you could you spend a day touring Detroit via Uber without draining the bank account. And how might the six-year-old Silicon Valley startup change the future of transportation in the Motor City?
10:10 a.m. • Location: Troy • Destination: Detroit Institute of Arts • Estimated Wait: 6 minutes
I’d been warned that getting a ride north of 14 Mile Road might be difficult. I loaded the Uber app on my smartphone and requested an UberX, the cheapest option. Within five minutes, a black Chevy Cruze arrived. Wearing a neat argyle sweater, driver Oleksandr Dmokhovskyy looked like a Sunday-school version of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski.
“I like to drive in the morning,” the soft-spoken Dmokhovskyy said. A Ukrainian Orthodox priest by profession, he came to Detroit a few years ago to head a parish. But after burying a majority of the small congregation, he found himself without a flock. Jobless, he turned to Uber last spring.
“Uber calls us ‘partners,’ ” he said. “They try to motivate us to work at night and on weekends because you can make the most money. When I tried to work at night there were a lot of people who weren’t sober.”
Dmokhovskyy prefers the morning crowd. And flexibility is the best part of being an Uber driver. Drivers are independent contractors who set their own hours. “Drive your car and be your own boss,” the ad said.
But it can cut both ways. Drivers don’t get paid for time spent getting to a pickup. “There are times when you drive 20 minutes to pick up your rider, only to drive them three minutes and you earn two rubles,” Dmokhovskyy says.
The Uber app only tells you where to pick up your passenger, not where they’re going. Although he lives in St. Clair Shores, Dmokhovskyy frequently ends up as far as Ann Arbor. If you don’t get lucky with a return rider, you eat the cost of gas and the time wasted.
Then there’s the issue of lower fares. To undercut taxis, Uber is constantly tinkering with its fare formula. This is great for riders, who’ve seen a general decrease in the cost of a ride since UberX launched in October 2013, but not so good for drivers.
“I’m earning a third less than I used to,” Dmokhovskyy said. “I used to earn an average of $15 an hour; now I earn about $10 an hour. And I still have to pay for gas out of that.”
Is it enough to live on?
“Not live, but survive,” he says. “Survival is possible, living isn’t.”
Distance: 17.01 miles • Time: 00:27:30 • Cost: $20.18
12:53 p.m. • Location: DIA • Destination: Taqueria El Rey • Estimated Wait: 6 minutes
Maureen Hermes, who drove up in her Dodge Grand Caravan, looked like a prototypical soccer mom. She’d been driving since June and seemed to enjoying it. Like Dmokhovskyy, she started driving at night. But with three kids, she switched to the day shift, chauffeuring riders for money before carting her own brood to soccer and track.
“It’s a little less busy, but it’s different people,” she said. “For one thing, they’re sober (and) using Uber to go to work and physical therapy. ...”
Hermes said she hadn’t been affected by the lower fares. Then again, the stakes were lower.
Her husband’s job carries benefits. But like Dmokhovskyy, she said she didn’t know any other Uber drivers, perhaps one reason the nationwide Uber drivers’ strike the previous week had such little impact.
“I find myself kind of as an island unto myself as a driver.”
Distance: 6.40 miles • Time: 00:09:46 • Cost: $9.57
1:46 p.m. • Location: Taqueria El Rey • Destination: Eastern Market • Estimated Wait: 8 minutes
When Richard Hassberger arrived in his Chrysler 300 wearing a suit, I thought this was a new spin on the power lunch.
“I wore one to work every day for 50 years,” he said. “I’m not about to stop now.”
Hassberger is more hobbyist than professional, despite the attire. The retired independent sales rep was looking for something to do. He started driving for Uber in January 2015.
“Really, it’s a way to keep me active,” he said. “You can only play so much golf.
“I like people. I like to drive,” he added. “My wife and I just got back from a 10-day trip. And the nice part of it is I didn’t have to ask for any time off.”
Distance: 5.64 miles • Time: 00:12:08 • Cost: $9.35
After a brief stop at Eastern Market, we spent the next few hours walking around downtown. Around 5:30 p.m., my wife called for an Uber to take her back to Troy; I met a friend for drinks.
7:07 p.m. • Location: Greenwich Time Pub • Destination: Dakota Inn Rathskeller • Estimated Wait: 5 minutes
Darkness had fallen when Bertina Yates swooped us up in her Kia Optima. The 30-year-old social worker had gotten off work in Pontiac an hour earlier and decided to turn on her Uber app on her way home to Birmingham — something she does a few nights a week.
“Normally a good day would be like $30 a night, because it’s just something I do on the side,” she said. “That’s like a tank of gas.
“I have never met a person at Uber,” she added. “Everything you do, you do online via email.”
We pulled up to the Dakota Inn, which was completely darkened, not a soul in sight. No biggie, Yates said. Did we want to go somewhere else? Hamtramck, I said. She punched an address into the Uber navigation app and we were off again in no time.
“Is there anything you don’t like about this gig?” I asked.
“They should add a tipping function on the app,” she said. “Uber does not let you tip. And as an Uber user and driver, I think it would be beneficial.”
Distance: 12.53 miles • Time: 00:25:33 • Cost: $16.52
9:41 p.m. • Location: Rock City Eatery • Destination: Z Garage • Estimated Wait: 7 minutes
We want to head back to my friend’s car at the Z Garage. Hamtramck resident Jahangir Ahmed picked us up in his shiny white Toyota Highlander. The Bangladeshi native who came to the United States 19 years ago worked full time in a Sterling Heights factory fabricating window garnishes. This was only his second night driving.
“Yesterday I did three trips,” and made $13, he said, laughing.
That’s for three hours of work, not including gas or insurance. Ahmed was one of the unlucky new drivers who signed up after Sept. 18, for whom the Uber commission rate is 28 percent. (Drivers who signed up before that are grandfathered into a 20 percent rate. That is, Uber takes one-fifth of their total fare.)
“So do you think you’ll do this long term?” I asked.
“No, sir,” he said without pause. “It’s just to pass the time. I have a full-time job.”
Distance: 6.21 miles • Time: 00:12:49 • Cost: $9.88
10:24 p.m. • Location: Ferndale • Destination: My Dad’s Bar • Estimated Wait: 5 minutes
We take my friend’s car to his place in Ferndale. I opt for a nightcap — on the other side of town.
Michael Rager’s cherry red Chrysler Town & Country pulled up. “Is this a late night or are you just getting started?” I asked.
“Actually, I was just on my way home (to Hazel Park),” he said.
After hearing from other drivers how annoying it is to not know your rider’s destination, I felt guilty for making Rager drive across the city when he was just minutes from home.
“I won’t have any hard feelings if you just drop me off and I’ll get someone else,” I said.
He refused to deposit me on Eight Mile Road. Maybe he’d just accepted this part of the job. He’d only been driving a few days.
“You know, it’s been OK. Most people are really nice.”
Asked if the money was any good, he let out a sigh — of defeat or relief, I couldn’t tell.
“No,” he said.“It averages to about $10 an hour and you use your own car (and) gas, so it’s like less than minimum wage.”
The further we drove, the more half-hearted he became about his prospects with the company. “I think it’s exploiting people by promising tons of money and then not really delivering on that promise,” he said. “And they say you can make all this money, but they factor in all the incentives, selling out all your friends.” (Uber offers sign-up bonuses for recruiting new drivers.)
“They’re really going to run through the people,” he said.
Distance: 15.49 miles • Time: 00:22:32 • Cost: $18.30
I sat at the bar and ruminated on Rager’s last statement. Maybe it didn’t matter if Uber churned through drivers. The company is playing the long game. It’s only a matter of time before the technology catches up to the vision — a fleet of self-driving cars roaming the streets of every major city, scooping up and depositing riders.
Soon the question won’t be about whether it makes sense to Uber around the city — even if you haven’t been sipping bourbon. It’ll be about whether it makes sense to own a car.
One day we might all be riders. Drivers need not apply.
For now, I call up the Uber app to arrange for a ride home.
1:21 a.m. • Location: My Dad’s Bar • Destination: Troy • Estimated Wait: 10 minutes
Distance: 24.98 miles • Time: 00:28:16 • Cost: $26.28
Total Distance: 88.26 miles • Total Cost: $110.08 • Average Cost Per Mile: $0.80