The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I run a university. I’m also an Uber driver.

I wanted to understand the sharing economy. Instead, I got schooled in the failures of Atlanta's public transit system.

Av Uber representative registers people on his smartphone. (Shannon Stapletonfait/Reuters)
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In my day job, I run Oglethorpe University, a liberal arts college in Atlanta. Over the last 40 years, I’ve also worked in the bleached-white collar realms of law and real estate.

This summer, I added a new line to my resume: Uber driver.

I signed up because I wanted to broaden my perspective on today’s “sharing economy.” After all, my students are confronting a very different job market than I did. Since the 2008 recession, many Americans have been pushed into or chosen to join the freelance marketplace, taking jobs with no regular hours, no benefits and no office. My wife calls it “Panera World,” where she, a freelance advertising executive, joins dozens of other freelancers who spend hours in the restaurant bakery working on their computers and phones every day. Some may forgo full-time work altogether, choosing by necessity or by choice to string together a series of part-time opportunities.

Opportunities like driving an Uber.

In just five years, Uber has accumulated enough rideshare industry milestones to make your head spin. The total distance traveled by all Uber drivers would take you to Planet Saturn — and back. Over 8 million users have summoned over 160,000 drivers in 290 cities around the world to get where they’re going, and that number is expanding. Uber drivers defy definition and expectations: while 19 percent are under 30, a full 25 percent (like me!) are over 50. What I wanted to explore — as up  close and personal as I might get — was what work was like for people joining this new labor force.

So I signed up. And a mere 24 hours after going online to begin my Uber driver registration, I hit the road in my newly washed and vacuumed Volvo S60 to begin my enlightening summer social experiment.

I began this social experiment understanding my own limitations. While half of all Uber drivers drive less than 15 hours a week, I knew I’d manage a whole lot less. I am not giving up my day job as university president, so my Uber outings must be on weekends, squeezed in over lunch, or before or after work. I contribute any fares I make, minus Uber’s 20 percent cut, to my university’s scholarship fund. And having begun this experiment mid-summer, I have just six weeks before the start of school — not nearly enough time to understand the workings of an entire industry.

With those caveats aside, here’s what I discovered. If you possess a fairly new and clean car without visible dents and have a decent driving record, you can join the Uber labor force almost instantaneously. My Uber “coach” showed up on campus and inspected my car within 20 minutes after my application was submitted. He told me I could make upwards of $300 a night if I fully committed myself and learned to hit the right spots at the right time. My biggest one-day take thus far has been $29. Even with my limited schedule, I thought I’d do a bit better than that. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t leave my day job.

I also learned a lot about Uber’s passengers. Before becoming a driver, I assumed the people who used Uber fell into three basic categories: young people (including lots of students at my own university) responsibly avoiding drinking and driving on nights out, business people who had switched to Uber for a faster response and lower cost, and folks like me who occasionally used Uber to avoid the hassles of traffic, parking or just because it’s the cool new thing to do.

Yet in my dozen-plus Uber forays thus far, I’ve encountered no one who fits those categories. Instead, with the exception of my first rider (who turned out to be one of my students), my riders have been on their way to work or to a vital appointments. Most often, my rides have been to and from the MARTA train station — about a $5 fare to a $2.50 ride on Atlanta’s meager public transportation system. Instead of getting a glimpse into the new economy, I was getting full exposure to the burdens of the old economy — specifically, how hard it is for regular working people to make it from their home or apartment to a job every day. This is a particularly big challenge in Atlanta, where just 18 percent of job are accessible by transit for residents of the greater metropolitan area.

One of my passengers was a young newly-trained long-haul truck driver headed to a truck stop to pick up his rig for a drive to the West Coast. After his 3000-mile, 48-hour journey, he would make his way back home to his family, whom he hadn’t seen in three months. He had left a decent but low-paying job as a park ranger to learn this new, more lucrative trade and now spent most nights on the road in the back of his cab, trying to catch some sleep. His goal was to accrue enough time on the job to drive locally nearer home. “You gotta do what you gotta do to make ends meet,” he told me.

Another recent fare took me in the vicinity of Clarkston, a city just outside Atlanta that’s become known for its large refugee community, most especially Sudanese.* I picked up my passenger at the end of the work day at the last MARTA station on the line. Atlanta is one of the most sprawling metro areas in the country, and large swaths of the suburbs are inaccessible by public transit.

These suburbs are where many of the city’s poor, non-white residents live. It’s almost impossible for them to get to the city to work — an example of urban planning at its worst. My rider sat in the back seat, eyes occasionally closing, and didn’t say a word to me other than, “thank you very much” when I dropped her at home. I didn’t ask, but my presumption, given the time of day, her dress and the route, was that this was her best alternative to get home to her family quickly and cheaply (a $5 fare) at the end of a long workday.

Though numbers are hard to come by, it seems like my observations line up with national trends in Uber ridership. When the company first launched, it marketed itself as an upscale alternative to taxicabs. But as The Washington Post’s Emily Badger explains, the company has since rolled out a series of services for a meant for a larger audience, like UberX and UberPool. “Uber argues that it provides more reliable service to minority consumers and underserved neighborhoods that have historically been discriminated against by cab companies,” Badger writes. “User testimonials bear this out: Uber travels to many neighborhoods where cabs just won’t go.”

A week ago, I picked up a 30-year old man who had only just begun to be able to stand upright, with the aid of a walker, 10 years after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. I drove him to his doctor for his therapy appointment. When we arrived at the office, after retrieving his walker from my trunk, I helped him make his way into the building. On our long, slow path in to his appointment, he told me that not being able to drive for a decade had almost been harder than losing his ability to walk.

As I was making my way back to work, I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard this young man’s life had become. My fare for his ride was $6. With the extra time I took to accompany him inside, it required about 30 minutes of my time. If I hadn’t picked him up, someone else surely would have. But if I hadn’t started this little experiment, my path would probably never have crossed the lives of any of these people whose life stories continuously surprise me. After three weeks, my earnings are approaching $100, but I sure feel richer for the experience.

* Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Clarkston.