For Ride-Hailing Companies, College Students Are a Rich Pool for Drivers
By Austin Hamby
For Reporting Texas
It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday, and Eric Martin is in his Nissan Versa, planning to head downtown from his North Austin apartment. Later in the day, he has classes at Texas State University’s satellite campus in Round Rock.
But first, Martin drives in the opposite direction to make some extra cash. He turns on the Lyft app on his phone, hoping to pick up a few paying passengers downtown, a high-demand area for ride-hailing companies. It’s Martin’s routine several days a week.
Martin has driven for Lyft and Uber since the companies came to Austin in the fall of 2014. College students are a key source of drivers for both companies. Uber has a page on its website aimed at enticing college students to become “Uber driver partners,” with promises they can make more than $20 an hour and set their own schedules.
The students become part of the so-called “gig economy,” in which people are free agents working under contract. Like musicians, they move from gig to gig – or, in the drivers’ case, from ride to ride. The drivers determine when and how much they will work. But the companies set the rules, and once the drivers turn on the Uber or Lyft apps, they are on duty, required to pick up any passenger the companies send them.
In Austin, the drivers also are at the center of a high-pitched debate over whether Uber and Lyft should be required to fingerprint their drivers, as taxi and pedicab companies do and as cities such as Houston require, to ensure passenger safety. A city ordinance mandating the fingerprinting was passed last year. In response, the companies mobilized drivers and customers to protest. When efforts at a compromise broke down, the companies proposed their own ordinance that excludes the requirement, and collected enough signatures to force a citywide vote on May 7 on their version, Proposition 1.
The companies are waging an expensive fight – they have spent $8.1 million through their political action committee, Ridesharing Works for Austin. The campaign has included heavy advertising that asserts that Lyft and Uber’s own background checks are sufficient and that the city is trying to quash innovation.
Lyft has said it will leave Austin May 7 if the proposition fails. Uber has suggested it would leave but provided no details.
Neither company responded to requests for comment.
Martin, 33, said he’s voting for Proposition 1. He was fingerprinted for his last job, as a special education assistant at Pflugerville’s Hendrickson High School. But he drew a line between government jobs and private employment.
“Being fingerprinted at a regular job, you know we don’t have to do that,” he said. “If that’s something a regular business would not ask me to do, then I feel I should not be asked to be fingerprinted.”
Martin said he’s interested in the flexibility that driving allows. He calculates how much time he will drive each week based on the bills coming due, and can make $300 on weekends. But there are downsides – wear and tear on the drivers’ cars, the hassle of tracking expenses such as gas and maintenance, the unpredictability about whether they’ll get rides, and the occasional unruly, obnoxious or drunk passenger.
Kelsie McCord, a mass communications major at Texas State, drives for Lyft in addition to her part-time job at Sephora at Barton Creek. While she would not mind being fingerprinted, she’s more focused on making money to pay for rent, textbooks and other bills.
McCord said that driving for Lyft is worth it if drivers take advantage of high-fare periods. On weekends, she targets areas such as West Campus or near Sixth Street, when a lot of people drink too much and need safe rides home.
“I think for the amount of effort you have to put into [it], it definitely pays well,” McCord said. “If you are just kind of going in and not trying to learn the ins and outs of it, you are probably going to lose a lot of money and waste a lot of time.”
The gig economy didn’t work out as well for Jennifer Pham, a 22-year-old biology major at the University of Texas at Austin, who drove for both companies for a while.
Pham said she could not drive at night, when rates are higher, because that’s when she studies.
“You don’t make as much money during the day because Austin traffic is just so bad,” causing her to waste time and gas, she said.
Pham quit last year, after her car was rear-ended during South by Southwest after she dropped off a passenger. The other driver was arrested for drunk driving, she said. She decided the risk of a repeat wasn’t worth it. Plus, she got a regular job as a medical scribe, who assists doctors by inputting information to patients’ electronic health records.
“It wasn’t really adding up for me,” she said of driving for Uber and Lyft.
The debate over fingerprinting is becoming more heated as election day approaches. Proposition 1 is the only thing on the May 7 ballot. Mayor Steve Adler has called for Austinites to reject the proposal and for the companies to come back to the table to negotiate a compromise. Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, chairman of the Vote for Prop. 1 Campaign, said passage is important to keep the companies in Austin.
City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who has led the fingerprinting effort, said the requirement isn’t designed to drive the companies out of Austin.
“This election is not about whether a person likes Uber and Lyft or whether they like the TNC service, but it’s about two things: whether or not we should use the best practices, which is fingerprinting for public safety,” she said. “The second thing is equally important– whether or not a multi-billion dollar corporation should be in the position to write their own public safety rules.”
Martin, who said he’s handled 1,500 rides for the companies, is focusing on the benefits of driving.
“My life’s not perfect, don’t get me wrong,” Martin said. “But there are some really great spots being able to drive for Lyft and Uber because it gives me the freedom to do whatever I want to do.”