After driving for Uber, he's keeping his day job

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My first fare as an Uber driver could not have worked out better.

Actually, I did have a brief moment of rookie jitters when my navigation system failed. I pulled over to get my bearings and wondered if Uber had ever fired someone on his first day.

But soon enough I got moving again and picked up Eloisa Lopez.

She had called a mile or so from where I live, and her destination was a block from my downtown Los Angeles office — convenient, because I needed to get to my other job.

Lopez, an administrative assistant at the Cesar Chavez Foundation, told me she and her husband got rid of their car because they prefer Uber and the Metro to the expense and hassle of driving in Los Angeles.

It wasn't the last time I would hear that as I traveled the San Fernando Valley, the Westside, over the hills and out to the beach, picking up and delivering fares. My passengers, most of them 30 or younger, had nothing but praise for Uber, saying that the service is far better and cheaper than traditional taxi service.

"Cabs are much more expensive — I would say like double," said Rebecca Collins, a passenger I took from her Mid-City apartment to her downtown Los Angeles job as a fashion designer. She told me she has a car but drives it so infrequently that she plans to sell it.

"I go out a fair amount with friends, and no one really drives anymore because no one wants to find parking," Collins said. And when you're not driving, she added, you don't have to worry about ordering another drink.

Collins said she gave up on taxis in part because drivers often discouraged the use of credit cards.

With Uber, you don't need cash or plastic. Your credit card is on file, and an app handles all the paperwork.

"It's transformative," said Brad Simpson, a TV producer I drove to the Fox lot. He said he and his wife met two other couples at a restaurant last week, and all three couples arrived by Uber.

"The app is great, you know you're getting a clean car, and I think it's going to change the way people get around Los Angeles in a huge way," he said.

It already has, as Uber, Lyft and other services cash in on the demand and the buzz. And at some point, the cultural shift may be big enough to have an impact on traffic.

But is Uber — a $50-billion Silicon Valley enterprise — as great for drivers as it is for passengers? Or is it yet another industry that might one day make a few people staggeringly rich on the backs of workers who struggle to eke out a living wage?

Might it even spell doom for taxi drivers, who could lose their jobs because moonlighters like me are picking off their customers?

I had read that some New York Uber drivers have made just under $100,000 a year, but I had also seen a chorus of complaints from drivers across the country who claim their income reality is closer to minimum wage than six figures. One protester in New York, where Uber and cab companies have had a head-on collision, carried a sign that said "Uber Is Walmart on Wheels."

In California, Uber is trying to fend off a class-action suit by drivers who contend that they aren't independent contractors, as Uber insists, but employees who are entitled to benefits and compensation for their operating expenses.

Eva Behrend, an Uber spokeswoman, said a study — commissioned by Uber — put the hourly rate for Los Angeles drivers at $17, not counting gas or other expenses.

A third of the drivers have full-time jobs and use Uber to supplement their income, Behrend said, telling me she knows some who drive only as long as necessary to pay for a family vacation or some other expense. In the study, 87% said they like setting their own schedule and being their own boss.

I wanted to find out for myself how hard it is to make decent money, so I went through the application and inspection process this summer and picked up my first fares in August. Then, on Wednesday, I set out to see how much money I could make driving a full shift.

I started at 9 a.m. and drove until 5 p.m., then went out again at 9 p.m. for a little over an hour.

Money aside, I liked the job. I chauffeured a singer, two songwriters, an aspiring therapist, a radio executive and a graduating USC student who has already lined up a computer engineering job. One young woman took a brief nap in my back seat and awoke to tell me how she overcame parental neglect, struck out on her own and started a career, and now looks after her younger siblings.

If I'm ever short on column material, I think I might turn on my driver's app and go fishing for fares.

But money-wise, I didn't strike gold. My 12 fares ranged from $4 to $44, and the take for nine hours of work was $153.30. Not bad, but Uber's cut was $30.66, which left me with $122.64. That works out to $13.63 an hour, but let's not forget the cost of gas, which comes out of my pocket.

That brought me down to $110 net, or $12.22 an hour. And I'm paying for the insurance and the wear and tear on my own car. It's possible that with more practice, I'd do a better job of working the zones where heavy demand leads to price surges, especially late at night, but the competition for those fares is stiff.

And by the way, I didn't get a single tip, perhaps because Uber's pitch to customers is "there's no need."

Thanks, Uber. I thought this was supposed to be a sharing economy.

Bill Rouse, general manager of Yellow Cab Los Angeles, said the game is rigged against taxi drivers and cab companies. His fares are higher, he said, because he's more heavily regulated and insured, and because it takes weeks to complete extensive background checks that take several days at Uber.

He's offering a safer service, as he sees it, and yet he and other cab company owners are vastly outnumbered by the Uber armada. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Uber drivers ply the streets of Los Angeles, compared to 3,600 essentially full-time taxi drivers sharing 2,600 cabs.

You've got to wonder whether cab companies can survive, especially now that Uber and Lyft will be allowed to begin tapping into the lucrative LAX market.

Eric Spiegelman, president of the L.A. Taxicab Commission, said that's one of the moral dilemmas in the sharing economy — would you rather have nearly 20,000 to 30,000 part-time jobs or 3,600 full-time jobs?

I'd like to think both can exist, and Spiegelman said he thinks they can. But he noted that the cab industry has lost about 11% of its drivers since 2013.

I asked my first passenger, Eloisa Lopez of the Chavez Foundation, what she thought of all this, given that she works for an agency named after a legendary labor leader.

She said she sympathizes with cabdrivers and used to travel by taxi. But cabs were unreliable and too expensive for her. She hopes the taxi companies can evolve, adapt and survive, but for now she's sticking with her Uber app.

"I have to do what's best for me economically," she said. "All of us are just trying to make a living."

Yes we are, and I think I'm going to try to hold on to my regular job.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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