For the last ten months I have been working as an Uber driver in London. It is an amazing company to work for. Totally flexible, constantly innovative, fair and prompt in its payments.
I’ve driven old people, youngsters, businessmen, drunks, choirgirls, cancer patients, a woman about to give birth, athletes (fit and injured) and visitors from every corner of the globe all over our great capital without any problem. It is a fantastic social enabler for anyone on a budget in the metropolis. And I’ve found it to be a perfectly fair and reasonable provider of income for self-employed, self-motivated people, such as myself.
I first started working in London in 1975 as a delivery driver, travelling all over the UK and Europe, and in the early 1980s, I became a self-employed musician and then a music journalist.
My career since then has given me plenty of experience of disadvantageous working conditions. When I lost my gig as critic for the Times in 2015, after 30 years of continuous service, without any pay-off whatsoever, I found myself in a world of zero-contract employment (never mind zero-hours), and increasingly zero-money. Even when an invoice has gone through, it can take anything from six weeks to six months to be paid, always assuming the publication hasn’t gone into administration in the interim. Live performance fees are increasingly swallowed by overheads while the digital revolution has seen royalty statements dwindle from a revenue stream to a trickle.
In need of some income while recording my fifth album, I turned to Uber.
If not my idea of a perfect job, then it has proved a timely, hopefully temporary solution, to my immediate problem. Payments are scrupulously calculated, transparently presented and made promptly. And it has been surprisingly rewarding in other ways. As well as cultivating a newfound familiarity with the Capital Radio playlist, I’ve had many intriguing encounters and conversations with people from all walks of life. I’ve been given specialist training to drive on the Uber ‘assist’ platform, which caters for disabled passengers. I’ve participated with other drivers in a focus-group discussion about Uber’s strengths and weaknesses as a brand.
The entrepreneurial ethos of the company is not in doubt. But neither is its determination to keep refining and reforming its product to achieve an almost eerie degree of user-friendliness. This idea that Uber is running some kind of tech-empowered sweat-shop for Eritrean refugees is nonsense. Of the other drivers I have met, many are highly qualified in other fields or other countries (frequently both). Many have university degrees. They are generally capable men, and occasionally women, of independent spirit who take their work seriously.
Sadiq Khan talks about his concerns for safety. Well, every time I go out on a trip, my activity is logged in absolutely precise detail. Along with my car’s registration, the passenger – or ‘rider’ as they are called in Uberspeak – is provided with my driver profile, including my name, a photograph, how many trips I have completed, how long I have been driving with Uber and my star rating. There is no cash transaction involved at any point. At the end of the trip they are invited to rate my performance out of five stars. If they have any ‘issues’ (complaints) they can make these known to Uber who will immediately make me aware of them. I once inadvertently set off in the wrong direction and took a rider to his destination, a short distance away, via a huge loop that added a few pounds to his fare. Within days this was refunded to him. My initial annoyance on discovering the money had been deducted from my earnings abated when I checked the map of the journey, recorded on the app, which clearly showed the navigational error of my ways.
Every day I receive a report on my previous day’s driving gleaned from the information on the app. This produces a strange, almost subconscious, effect. When I started with Uber I would get reasonable scores such as: Smooth Brakes 128/132 and Smooth Accelerations 140/142. Now anything less than 132/132 feels like failure. I recently took a couple from Heathrow to a hotel in Hampshire, a trip involving a drive down the M3. The following morning, the app had flagged up an amber warning: ‘Speed: Could improve. How fast do you drive?’ At some point I’d touched maybe 74mph, and my card had been duly marked.
The biggest problem I’ve encountered as an Uber driver, apart from the sheer volume of traffic in London, is the intrusive and unhelpful interventions by TfL. Their inspectors jump out of the shadows just as you are offloading a rider at a hotel, demanding to see your identity badge and insurance documents. In recent weeks, these TfL snoopers have started hanging around at the Authorised Vehicle Area at Heathrow where all private hire vehicles are required to wait before picking up their fares. They come over in pairs and, along with sensible (but tiresome) checks on tyres and lights, they also note with officious concern any odd scratches or marks on the paintwork. (Your car, incidentally, has to be MOT-ed every six months and is subjected to an annual inspection at a TfL centre, costing £100, in order to qualify for a private hire licence in the first place.)
On the very first occasion I went to Uber I undertook a Topographical Skills Assessment (a map reading test) and an enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) criminal background check for which I paid £62. This is the same background check as the black cab drivers are required to undergo and was accepted by TfL as part of my application for a Private Hire Driver’s Licence. But two weeks ago, out of the blue, TfL wrote to me stating that because of some technicality they are now ‘unable to accept’ the DBS check which they accepted 10 months ago – along with my licence application fee of £250 – and require me to undergo a new DBS check in the next 28 days at a cost to myself of £56.85. All in the name of maintaining ‘the safety of the travelling public’. Do me a favour.
Now, in their eagerness to bring the tech giant to heel, TfL have exercised the nuclear option. How short-sighted. It is a setback for Uber, but hardly the end of a business model that is clearly the future of the service industry. Everywhere, from Airbnb to the plumbing app Tradify and the media resource platform peopleperhour.com, the gig economy is thriving. Uber, which for all the talk of complicated tax avoidance schemes, has yet to turn an operating profit, may succumb. But another app of a similar nature will take its place. I feel sorry for the people who may lose their living in the interim. And for the people whose lives will be made more onerous by the removal of such a demonstrably beneficial service. Mostly, I feel sad for London.