How to be an UBER driver (in three easy steps)


Yes, I am an UBER driver. There’s no shame in admitting it. When you’ve been seeking full-time employment for 12 months and the market flatly rejects what you have to offer, you’ll take anything that comes to hand. At 46, I like to think I’m in pretty good shape, but  getting a gig in the IPL as a 20/20 cricketer is a dream I need to let go, so… welcome to UBER!

The attraction is pretty straight forward. We need money, we have a car, I’m a very good driver. That last qualifier may be open to subjection, but the first two are undeniable. As it pans out, it works like a dream. There is no roster to adhere to, no supervisor, no meetings to attend. You switch on and switch off whenever. This fits perfectly with our matrix of one full-time working parent, and two full on primary school boys with a social calendar that would be the envy of less notable European royalty. When all the ducks are aligned, I walk out the front door, shake out the floor mats, wash off the most offensive of the bird poo, and hit the streets.

I have to admit, I had some reservations. If you research the world according to Google you will find many colourful examples of the business practices of UBER. Let’s not be squeamish, it’s been ruthless in attaining its success. What would it be like working with an organisation at the very forefront of disrupting the technological and transportation status quo? Surprisingly easy as it turns out. Not only do they provide you with the cashless smart phone platform that allows you to work, but a support structure that solves all of your problems by email or text with a patient, kind and cheery disposition. Damn their seductive wiles.

Step one to being an UBER driver is to drive with zen like composure. When I consider how often my children have witnessed the delivery of expletive laden thoughts to my fellow road users, they would be surprised at the transformation of Daddy’s attitude when paying riders are in the car. I think any anxiety I would usually feel in traffic (i.e. being late, lost or hosing down a battle to the death in the back seat between my offspring), is transferred wholly to the rider I’ve picked up. I have no emotional involvement in the journey. That said, it brings joy to my heart when a rider jumps in and says “I’m late, go as fast as you can” (I imagine a tearful reunion at the airport as one lover stops the other walking through the departure gate and leaving forever – although typically its to start a shift at a fast food franchise) . My private-eye/noir dreams will be fulfilled when someone jumps in and shouts “follow that car!”

The challenge with driving safely in Melbourne is that the roads don’t seem to be intentionally designed to achieve this. Usually when you drive, you drive from point A’s to point B’s, repeat, repeat, repeat. You learn and remember the idiosyncrasies of that particular route and avoid the pitfalls. Driving for UBER I’ve discovered road signs I didn’t know existed, speed limits that range from 40 to 50 to 60 to 70 to 80 to 100, and which vary at different times of day depending on whether your children are to be run down on the way to, or from school. Its not good enough that traffic lights go from green to orange to red to green, but apparently we need ones that flash orange for a wee while, or have dispensed with the green signal entirely. And bike lanes, WTF! I’m an evangelist of the bike and the benefits of cycle commuting, but we have designed and installed in Melbourne and surrounds a piecemeal bike lane system that seems specifically designed to ensure the greatest number of bike riding casualties. This is only aggravated when someone like me, unfamiliar to a suburb and the local council’s unique solution to funnelling bicycles through it streets, navigates his bleary eyed way through it. Whilst I am yet to collect anyone upon my bonnet, one feels it is only a matter of time.

Step two to being an UBER driver is to navigate using a step-by-step GPS mapping system. This has a profound impact on how your brain works. Again, traditionally, we drive from point A’s to point B’s, and repeat, repeat, repeat. This creates a holistic image within the brain of the route and your spatial orientation – who isn’t familiar with the sensation of arriving home and having zero memory of the actual journey. Auto pilot kicks-in, leaving you free to make a mentally strike off people from your Christmas card list, or the options for dinner. At around the 4 hour hour mark of constant navigating, I can no longer use big words, string a complete sentence together or in an unfamiliar suburb tell the difference between north, south, east or west. But if you allow me to follow Google Maps instructions I can get you where you want to go, in the shortest possible time (mostly nearly always). It’s a modern miracle.

Step three to being an UBER driver is to connect with the human race. Truthfully, I’m not sure this is essential, but what a waste of an opportunity. My passengers have included musical instrument makers to the stars (The Wiggles), professional dancers, former Federal Ministers of Parliament, international shoe designers, famous comedians, hospitality workers by the boat load, lovers breaking up, lovers coming together, hen’s parties causing mayhem, octogenarians using their smart phones and UBER for the first time, doctors, lawyers, students, strip club performers, teachers, childcare workers, dentists, young people on the way to a party, young people on the way home from a party (mum and dad financing the UBER in lieu of doing the driving themselves), mums and dads escaping the children for a night on the town, countless airport runs, people on the way to a job interview or homebound as early morning escapees from one night stands. Every one an opportunity for a story and a conversation. Some people don’t want to talk. We drive quietly and you get to where you need to be. But for every one of these rides I get three more share their hopes and dreams, their musical tastes, their equally crazy children and how hard it is to be a parent, their political views or professional lives. And what a gloriously diverse story it is that Melbourne shares. This for me is the essence of the experience. It’s true value. The transportation just happens as an added bonus.

If all of that is pretty mundane, wrap you’re head around the future. UBER is one of many tech companies planning towards a future of 100% electric, self-driving vehicles. The future is 2030 – thats thirteen years from now. Not only will a drivers licence become obsolete as a rite of passage, but so will car ownership. The vision is that fleets of these vehicles, owned by corporations or collectives (no one is certain what the model will look like to be economically viable) will take you where you need to go so efficiently and at such low cost that it will make no sense to own your own car. The modelling suggests that a worldwide fleet of 50 million of these cars will effectively replace 1 billion vehicles on the road. Instead of driving the 30 minutes to work in your own car, parking it for 8 hours before returning 30 minutes home, the car of the future will be running all day picking up and dropping off riders throughout cities and urban landscapes. The first obvious impact is on travel times and safety with less traffic on the road, the second is the reclaiming of our cities. The roads and carparks no longer required can be returned to green space, housing and other beneficial purposes. Modelling out of the USA identifies as much as 25% of a city could be transformed for these purposes.

If this sounds far fetched, think again. Change can be so gradual, it sneaks up on you. UBER has already convinced large swathes of young people in Melbourne that car ownership is a dud, and many, many families like ours that a second car is equally irrelevant. The future is coming fast.

Notes on freedom for a 6 year old boy

My new years resolution, perhaps the new years resolution, is to get a job. That pays money. As of mid January this hasn’t occurred, so moving quickly onto other options it would also be resolute to contribute to Coburghagen once again.

My posts fell away, as many a progressive cause or much loved celebrity in 2016, but in my case due to a falling out of love with writing. The fall can be directly attributed to committing the most productive hours of the day writing cover letters and responding to key selection criteria. In time the lack of reward for effort begins to wear you down, and before you know it you have stopped writing altogether.

Slapping that kind of negativity in the face is step 1, along with being prescribed thyroxine by my Endocrinologist, before sticking my head up and observing the wonders that have been occurring right in front of my eyes. To wit, my 6 year old known as ‘Breaker’, not as a nod of respect to Mr Morant and his horse skills, but to his propensity to bugger up anything his incredibly strong fingers can get a hold of. Prophetically though, this story is about his ability to break in the saddle of a 20 inch Avanti Shadow, or in layman terms, learn to ride a bike.

For a child in 2016, there are limited opportunities for a meaningful rite of passage. My definition would broadly encapsulate experiences that engender self-belief and worth, and provide a child with a greater perspective of their world. In observing Breaker and his older brother ‘Moaner’ (another literal explanation) the only comparable experience has been watching them learn to swim. In this case young Breaker was slowly convinced by his enlightened and insightful parents that what he really wanted for his birthday was a bike. Forget the iPad and nerf gun, the bike was the biz. Heeding this advice, the first stage in encouraging his love affair was to let him pick the bike he wanted. Having done the basic research and visited the local stores Breaker fell in love with the most expensive option (we’ve all been there). Figuring it was money well spent if he was encouraged to ride, we handed over the credit card, or as explained by Breaker at the till “you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit”, and rode off into the sunset (our local park, with a decent gravel path winding its way in and around the trees and play equipment).

As a parent we all do the “just listen to me” routine. We tell our children exactly what they need to do and they choose to do something else. Day 1 of learning to ride involved me giving intense levels of instruction and feedback before Breaker requested in a pleading voice that I stop shouting at him. Taking that on board, I shut up and just pushed when pushing was requested. This was frequently. The target on day 1 was to complete one lap of the park without stopping, falling or colliding. It was a wobbly, anxiety inducing lap but it was achieved. As a parent I saw Breaker with fresh eyes. So long in the shadow of his older brother, he was far more determined than I had given him credit for. He was simply not going home until a confirmed lap was under the belt. Secondly, he got great personal satisfaction out of his accomplishment, walking at least a foot taller on the way home.

Day 2 was considered by me as an opportunity to consolidate on lap 1, and maybe work on the art of starting and stopping. The end of day 2 saw thirty consecutive laps without a break and a look of pure joy beaming on the face of Breaker. And thats it, 2 days to to learn to ride a bike. Mind boggling. Mind boggling because Breaker immediately saw the potential. A child of small to medium motivation when it came to a suggested walk to the shops was now actively canvassing expeditions to pick up a litre of milk, or the daily ride to school. Looking through his eyes I could revisit what we all appreciate about riding a bike but tend to forget. It’s efficient, it’s fun, it puts you on a level playing field with your big brother, it is the freedom to go wherever you want to go under your own steam, to push beyond your known horizons. And so on the streets of Coburg in 2016, a 6 year old boy discovers the concept of freedom.

The uncomfortable reality is that less and less children are receiving access to an opportunity like this in our car heavy suburbs. Parents are likely too busy or worried to allow their children to ride to school or cruise the streets on the weekend or a warm summer evening. If you can’t experientially encounter a core concept such as freedom in your developing years, how do you grow up to value, advocate and protect it when the world is going pear shaped? In years such as 2016, which throw up more questions than they answer, expanding access to these concepts and experiences for future generations becomes increasingly vital.

Getting on the Coles bandwagon

We are going through something of a philosophical journey in regard to our grocery shopping here in Coburg. Step 1 on this path to enlightenment was to begin to feel uncomfortable about the relationship Woolworths has with the poker machine industry. Make up your own mind on the issue, but as a matter of personal choice we have walked away from the store, although I’m not sure they’ve noticed yet. Step 2 was to consider the amount of plastic packaging we were bringing home after a family shop, mostly wrapped around our fruit and veg; the recycling bin was full to overflowing each and every week.

Being confirmed Aldi fans for sometime – a magical shopping duet with the local Woolworths – the time had come to source our fruit and veg plastic free. All it took was a calculator and the receipts from our last supermarket shop to realise that we were spending the same amount of money as a large mixed fruit and veg box from CERES Fair Food. The universe was calling, because once we looked at the details we found our local food host lived directly across the road, requiring a less than 60 second journey door to door on a Thursday afternoon to pick up our box. Sold on the concept, we are a couple of weeks in and loving the variety of seasonal produce, and wondering on occasion what to do with the mystery vegetable of the week (I think its kale, but it may also be the illegitimate offspring of broccolini and rocket).

So we’ve got rid of Woolworths and we’ve got rid of kilo’s of plastic on the road to nirvana, can it possibly get any better? With CERES providing our fruit and veg, and Aldi the bulk of our other needs, we still required particular products/brands that neither supplied to our liking, so ‘hello’ Coles Coburg North. More a marriage of convenience, I wasn’t really expecting to view Coles through the lens of sustainability. It was something of a surprise then to come across the large internal promotion of the stores sustainability credentials

IMG_20160220_132500_6(Image: S.Powell)

There is a part of my brain that is very cynical about Coles embracing the sustainability movement, but to give them their due, they are at least aware of the bigger picture and their corporate responsibility. The broader argument being that there is a growing legitimacy crisis between society’s expectations of business’ social performance and there actual (much lower) performance. This is driven by four key factors, the first being that the social, environmental and economic priorities in which business operates is changing:

  • in the past they could afford to be oblivious to their social and environmental impacts
  • now they have to strive to reduce impacts and project a positive image
  • in the future they have to have positive impacts and provide social and environmental solutions

The second factor is the three waves of environmentalism model proposed by Krupp (1992), in which the business sector is slowly but surely brought to the table:

  • 1st wave: Activism (industry and govt. resistance)
  • 2nd wave: Government Intervention (resistance to regulation)
  • 3rd wave: Market based solutions (business participates)

The third factor is the new logic of business:

  • that the environment is no longer a threat to the bottom line, and
  • green strategies are good for both the planet and business, as they
    • save money
    • minimise risk, and
    • boost competitiveness

Finally, the last factor is the business case for sustainability, or how to do more with less:

  • Cost savings – less waste, reduced material inputs
  • Improved risk management – reduced risk and liabilities
  • Marketing advantage – innovation, competitiveness and differentiation
  • Human resource benefits – better staff morale, loyalty, decreased absenteeism
  • Value creation and protection – improved quality and safety = improved shareholder value

How sincere Coles is, and how far they have travelled done the path of their own enlightenment is a discussion for another day, but its always an encouraging sign to see these concepts seeping into the local business community.


Krupp, F. (1992). Business and the third wave: saving the environment. Vital Speeches, 58(21), 656-659.

Sydney Rd: Nightmare or Opportunity?

We are at the early stages of a significant change, or ‘paradigm shift’, in the ways in which [urban] transportation is conceived, planned, financed and implemented (Schiller et al 2010, xxi).

In local news this week, the Victorian State Government knocked back plans devised by Revitalise Sydney Rd, and endorsed by Moreland Council, to remove on-street parking along Sydney Rd. The central sticking point is the concern from local business that the lack of street parking would negatively impact on their trading.

Anyone familiar with the key strip of Sydney Rd in question, as it runs between Bell St in the north and Brunswick Rd in the south, would likely agree that significant change is needed. Personally, if I’m driving our car Sydney Rd is to be avoided at all costs, as a cyclist it is something of a death trap, and as a pedestrian it is an ugly, noisy, wind tunnel. On the few occasions that I use the tram, it is commonly stuck in traffic and risky to step on and off. Having made those complaints, local people just love it. Historically it has always been a nexus for local business and trade and therefore a place for social interaction, a physical and geographical heart of the community, joining together the suburbs of Coburg and Brunswick like a great big zipper right down their middle.

One of the historical reasons for the considerable congestion we see today is that the creation of the Sydney Rd strip dates back to a period when the key design paradigm in existence was the ‘transit city’. The introduction of passenger rail, horse-drawn street cars and eventually electric trams enabled urban expansion which reshaped our local urban form, and which is clearly still physically visible today in and around Sydney Rd – medium density, mixed use, grid based and centralised. In essence you could walk from home for all of your shopping, you may have been walking to work yourself or walking to the nearest tram or train stop to take you further. This smaller, more human scale built environment hasn’t physically altered since but we insist on cramming in hundreds of thousands of more people and their cars. Is it any surprise that is doesn’t work?

My perception is that Revitalise Sydney Rd are promoting a paring back of the way Sydney Rd is used, so that it more closely reflects the priorities and intentions of the transit city design that the area originally supported. Schiller et al 2010 speak to the historical changes we can observe here on Sydney Rd, the first being the public transport age, the second the automobile age, the third the age of disillusionment (as represented by the existence of Revitalise Sydney Rd as a lobby group), and the final era to follow – the age of sustainability.

Whilst the concerns of local traders can’t be ignored, I wonder what price we will pay for doing little or nothing in the long term? Cities like London, Paris, New York, Singapore and Seoul have taken the bull by the horns and introduced significant disincentives to automobile use (such as economic instruments, road diets and parking policies) and as a consequence are returning the streets to the people. For one of the most extraordinary examples from Seoul, watch this video:

By creating a more sustainable transport system on Sydney Rd we could achieve the following outcomes:

  • When cars are removed, space is created for activities and functions that are more valuable to the area economically, socially, culturally and environmentally
  • When public transport is favored over the automobile there is increased equality within the community, reduced emissions, and increased personal economic expenditure in areas other than transportation.
  • When walking and cycling are more often undertaken, the health benefits are significant and the public spaces are more engaging, inclusive and connected.

Communicating and installing these benefits is the challenging task now required to shift Australian cities, and Sydney Rd, towards a new paradigm of sustainability.


Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?

My Mum passed on a book she thought I’d be interested in the last time we caught up, which is a pretty simple act in the context of a modern and technologically sophisticated world, but remains a powerful method for sharing ideas and challenging the status quo.

Image courtesy of Penguin Australia
Image courtesy of Penguin Australia

In this case the book was an essay by Luke Slattery – ‘Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?’, published by Penguin Specials in 2012. To place him historically, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who predated Christ by three centuries, and it was fascinating to read that centuries later the movement remained robust, active and relevant. So much so that it was in direct competition with the evolving Christian religion for the spiritual hearts and minds of the local populace, perhaps even had the better of, before it was overtaken and largely forgotten. One of those sliding door moments that could, perhaps, have led to a radically different world to the one we inhabit today.

The essence of Slattery’s writing is that Epicurus’ teachings suggested happiness can only be achieved through a simplification of our lives, to want less, to need less, to find joy and fulfilment through friendship, simple pleasures and living in the present. He also, radically, rejected the Gods, the concept of fate or an after life, extolling to his followers the capacity they had for personal agency within their own lives and communities, and that nothing mattered but the here and now – no paradise came after.

Slattery takes these ideas and transposes them onto the biggest challenge we face today, unsustainable development. Relentless, exponentially increasing consumption is at the heart of our global economic system, constant growth as a necessary force for attaining prosperity, for social justice and equity. The question is, can we decouple human development, fulfilment and happiness from this desire for more stuff? Because if we can’t, our future appears to be very bleak, both for the civilisation we have created and our species as a whole.

What fascinates me about this book is the timeless quality of human frailty. Almost 2,500 years ago the people of ancient Greece were worried about the impact on our wellbeing of a propensity for greed, of striving for power, of desire for wealth and material goods. These concerns are not unique to our time, to our own manifestation of neoliberalism, consumerism, globalisation, industrialisation and free markets. We aren’t special in that regard, as Epicurus’ concern is both deeply spiritual and enduring – how do we achieve human happiness? What is unique about our modern world is that greed and desire on a global industrial scale has the capacity to significantly alter or destroy the eco-system services we rely upon to supply our life giving needs – air, food and water.

The key question for me is how do we create the required transformation of our socio-economic system? How do we shift billions of people away from a life based upon material aspirations? My sense is that this is not about a search for answers. Epicurus, amongst other philosophical traditions, has provided a sound basis for living our lives sustainably. Similarly, climate change as an issue could be largely resolved with the technology and knowledge we already have available, it is only the political will that is fundamentally lacking. We have to want to change, we have to be motivated to change, we have to be given a positive vision of what change will mean and look like. Perhaps most of all, we need to know that we are not on this journey alone, that we are part of a broad community movement. I’m not a practitioner of any organised religion, but I recognise the urgent need to emotionally engage and unite society with the biggest challenge it has ever faced, and the potential of religion to teach us how to bring people together for a common moral/ethical cause. It’s a funky collaboration, science and religion, but if the process isn’t collaborative and inclusive what chance do we stand?

Walking to School Month

I don’t read my local newspaper with too many expectations. Stories seem to sit on the extreme ends of a spectrum – either outrage and indignation (think local government planning decisions) or sugary sweet (remarkable escape and return of family pet from tree/stormwater drain/garbage truck). There must be a tried and tested formula because its been done this way for as long as I can recall, across the numerous suburbs I’ve called home. But they do come into their own sharing community information that isn’t going to make the headlines anywhere else. Case in point, I was flipping through the pages of a recent edition and came across a story from our local Council promoting an event I’d never heard of, Walk to School Month. As a parent of a Grade 2 and soon to be Prep, I thought I had my finger on the pulse regard the complete range of available events and activities for children, assisting me in either avoiding them at all costs or to donate my own children for experimentation.

Its a straight forward program, VicHealth encourages students to walk, scoot or ride to school throughout October to help them achieve their 60 minutes of physical exercise per day. As its 2015 there’s a website and an app, and competitions and prizes to engage and motivate the participation of the kids and parents, which say’s something fairly significant about our current relationship with the original method of human transportation. More interesting to me are the benefits associated with participation. Improved health outcomes are obvious, and with rising levels of obesity in the developed world, as opposed to the malnutrition prevalent in many developing countries, its a community and social issue we need to be right on top of. From a sustainability standpoint I was immediately hooked by the opportunity to take cars off the streets, the reduced congestion leading to easier and safer access to the school, and the associated reduction in air and noise pollution. Lastly, the potential to improve parent/child relationships is also promoted, a very different and unique dynamic being in play when you walk or ride alongside each other as opposed to the inherent distractions of driving.

At this point I should put up my hand and declare that we are serial walkers/riders to school. As a one-car-family it is partly born of necessity, but more influential is my own experience as a student. Going to school on the Northern Beaches of Sydney in the 1970’s and 80’s meant a return walk of 5km’s on my little legs with Mum, and when there was enough money and I was deemed responsible enough, I got a bike and was on my own. Eventually a bus option became available, but we were feral and frequently in trouble, and being driven to school was a rare and exotic treat. So riding (or walking when the bike was either intermittently broken, missing or stolen) was always the best option. It meant being responsible enough to be on your own and the personal freedom that entails, it meant meandering conversations with my group of friends as we collected each other along the way, it meant uncountable bike races, bike crashes, and the freewheeling glide down the hill from my house, before the long climb back up in the afternoon.

Its sounds idyllic but lets face it, life was different. There was more time, more space, less material things, less organised activities and lessons to improve and advance your children. I wanted my boys to experience a little bit of my own childhood, perhaps in meek response to them growing up as Victorians and AFL obsessives. We’re certainly not the only family that walks or rides to school, there are a number of die-hards who we regularly meet or pass on the way regardless of the weather or season, but the traffic congestion on the streets surrounding our school at drop off and pickup times is increasingly intense, a battlefield to find a parking spot while passing traffic builds up and makes increasingly hazardous attempts to squeeze past.

I might be lucky but my eldest son loves to ride his bike, picture Elliot in E.T., without E.T. in a basket on the handle bars.

Image courtesy of Sean Powell
Image courtesy of Sean Powell

It’s an extension of his body and his personality – always smiling, always contemplative, always finding a way to beat Dad at something. We take our time to and from school, we feel the heat, the cold, the wind, the rain, and make appropriate complaints and recriminations to the weather gods. We stop and temporarily supervise road works and trench digging, memorise the make of vehicles by their badges, check out for sale signs on houses and fight over who’d get the biggest bedroom, pick up sticks and run them along fences, or pinch flowers overhanging footpaths and growing on nature strips to bring home to Mum. Nothing very deep or consequential, just hanging out and watching the world go by together.

If anything is going to successfully motivate necessary change in the 21st century its going to be the inherent joy and happiness felt through experiences and activities like this. As a motivator for walking or riding to school, its good to know that its helping to keep us healthy, and my personal sense of superiority is enhanced by the environmental do-gooding but none of these are in themselves motivating enough to make it part of our every day lives. We’re too short sighted, too busy, too lazy, too easily distracted or led astray. We do it because it makes us happy, because it clears the head after a day of toil and gives some precious personal time with my children whilst they’re still young enough to think thats a good thing. We do it because in combination, factors like this make it the best option. Instilling the necessary attitudes and habits to ensure that many of todays challenges are stabilised, reduced and even eliminated in the future is best done at an early age. It worked for me.