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

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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.

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.