Here's What Happens When Journalists Pretend to Be Uber Drivers

"Rather than make potentially litigious small talk, I just turned up the radio.”

Uhhhh (Photo: File)
Uhhhh (Photo: File)

Reviled by taxi unions and under scrutiny for its surge pricing practices, Uber is a pretty controversial app. And working for the taxicab startup, two writers recently found, is also far from a perfect experience.

GQ writer Mickey Raplan played the part of an UberX driver for a week and wrote about it, witnessing the typical bad behavior a cab driver sees on the job. Says Mr. Raplan:

“Just for the record, I have been waiting in this brat’s driveway for fifteen minutes while he (I’m just guessing here) stared at himself in the mirror and (again, just guessing here) debated exactly how many rope bracelets still qualifies as casual. I won’t notice the pimp cup he and his friends are sipping from until they get out of the car, which is probably a good thing—I’m a bit of a neat freak, and I’ve never enjoyed so much as a Nutri-Grain bar inside my car.”

Later, Mr. Raplan writes, he had no choice but to stare straight ahead as a couple hooked up in the back seat of his car, and when a passenger gave a friend information on the area’s best coke dealer.

Driving while operating two smartphones was also a challenge. All UberX drivers are given an iPhone 5 with an app that allows them to connect with passengers. But if they want to find out which area has a lot of other drivers (i.e., competitors) nearby, they need to use their personal phones.

David Fagin, a Huffington Post journalist who tried out the UberX lifestyle in Hoboken, was not happy about this.

Fagin highlights a number of other problems: the “heat maps” that tell drivers where the most passengers are can be faulty, and drivers often poach each other’s customers. But the biggest problem, Mr. Fagin insists, is that UberX simply doesn’t pay well enough:

“It’s incredibly infuriating to spend an hour or more taking a rider from Newark to the bowels of Brooklyn and see the fare was only $68 dollars. Especially when simply crossing into Manhattan is a flat fee of $65 dollars. Surely, taking an extra 40 minutes to traverse the Manhattan Bridge, onward through the fifty traffic lights on Flatbush Ave, passing Grand Army Plaza, and continuing on a mile after that, is worth more than $3 bucks? Not to Uber.”

Mr. Fagin ultimately concluded that, for drivers, UberX is simply too good to be true. But Mr. Raplan disagreed.

“My week as a cabdriver was nearly over, and I realized I was going to miss it,” Mr. Raplan reflects. “I wasn’t going to miss the money—after Uber’s cut, I took home $312 on twenty-four rides. (I could have made much more if I’d stayed out later, but I’m basically narcoleptic.) I was going to miss the voyeurism, but not in the way you’d think. As a driver, you’re supposed to be invisible, but you’re let in on these poignant little moments.”

Mr. Raplan says the most memorable moment was overhearing the conversation of a young couple in the early stages of a blossoming romance. That’s a touching memory, but was it really worth the hassle?

Here's What Happens When Journalists Pretend to Be Uber Drivers