Inside the gig economy: Drivers form community around on-demand work

Oct. 21, 2019

By John Hult, for SiouxFalls.Business.

A funny thing happened on the way to Uber’s arrival in Sioux Falls: The city’s gig economy grew up.

The flagship startup of the ride-sharing industry launched more than a year after the city and state changed the rules to make it easier for companies like Uber to operate.

By the time Mayor Paul TenHaken climbed into Maggie Rice’s 2015 Chevy Tahoe in June to mark the city’s first Uber trip, Rice had more than a year of experience and 4,000-odd Lyft rides under her belt. 

She’d also toyed with driving for some of the other gig economy companies that have popped up to serve the city since late 2017, such as Instacart for groceries, DoorDash for food delivery or Postmates for both.

Rice and her fellow gig economy contractors jokingly refer to one another as “Luber” drivers — switching between apps to minimize downtime and maximize take-home pay in what many see as a market now saturated with drivers. 

Sioux Falls riders are more likely to use Lyft, Rice said, but Uber offers another possible income stream for drivers who bounce between multiple tasks. 

“A friend of mine always has DoorDash and Postmates (turned) on when she’s not doing Uber or Lyft,” said Rice, who drives 50 to 60 hours each week. 

Rice likes knowing she can shut off the apps any time, but she also likes knowing she can pick up extra cash in plenty of cities — something Uber’s larger national footprint helps her do. 

During a recent trip to Nebraska for her son’s wrestling tournament, she did family activities with other parents on the first night but turned on her Uber app and worked a few hours the next.

“That was our concession money for the next day,” said Rice, who also has logged rides in Minnesota and Iowa.

Stories about how and where to make the most of gig work are now shared among hundreds of members of the Sioux Falls-area Lyft and Uber Facebook pages. Drivers also organize and invite others to de-escalation or self-defense classes and share lists of regional events to signal where their riders might be from day to day.

During shifts, they’ll chat with one another through a walkie-talkie style app called Zello, track their friends during long out-of-state trips with a GPS app called Life360 or even get together for picnics or Christmas parties.

Heidi Varro has worked both full- and part-time hours as a driver in Sioux Falls since the spring of 2018. She found herself sliding down a snowy hill over the winter and pinged her fellow drivers. It wasn’t long before they found her 2015 Kia Soul, easily recognizable by a personalized license plate that reads ‘Hi-Di-Ho.”

“Within 15 minutes, I had four drivers show up to help me out,” said Varro, who now takes riders from both apps and still counts driving as her prime income source. “It’s really great to drive in Sioux Falls because of the community we have.”

That cohesion separates the city from other markets, according to Nylis “Gene” Renschler, a Sioux Falls resident who has driven for both companies in several cities and states. Renschler recently took a week off from his day job with the U.S. Geological Survey to drive in Omaha during the College World Series.

There was a sense of community for Omaha’s drivers, he was told, but nothing like what Renschler has come to expect at home.

“On a Saturday morning at 3 a.m. in Sioux Falls, you might see a dozen drivers at an IHOP or a Fryin’ Pan having breakfast,” Renschler said. “You definitely don’t see that everywhere.”

Omaha is a more typical city in other ways too, he said. Uber hails vastly outnumbered those for Lyft during his weeklong working vacation. In Omaha, he estimates an 80/20 split in Uber’s favor. Sioux Falls is the opposite, he said.

It’s getting more difficult to get by on gig work alone in Sioux Falls, though. Uber and Lyft don’t release driver numbers to the public, but drivers have noticed more vehicles on the road and fewer riders to go around. Rice has upped her hours to make up for lower rider numbers, working six days a week and 12 to 14 total hours on Friday and Saturday nights.

“That’s where I try to maximize my hours because in this business that’s where the demand is,’ Rice said. 

Rice and Varro both field questions from friends about safety, but their experiences on the road haven’t given them pause. The de-escalation training was helpful for dealing with unruly passengers, Varro said, but she also said her experiences have been mostly positive. Out of over 1,000 rides, she has had only four or five riders she wouldn’t want to be paired with again.

“I always listen to my gut when I have a passenger,” Varro said. “I know if I’m uncomfortable at any time, I can pull over and ask the person to get out of my car.”

Reading passengers is also part of boosting business. Varro stocks her Kia with goodies like bottled water or breath mints and has an auxiliary cord to let passengers pick the music. If the music and mood are right, she might turn on her disco ball. Riders who seem game might hear trivia.

As with any service gig, people skills translate into higher income for ride-share drivers.

“Tips help a lot,” Varro said. “The base pay alone doesn’t cover our expenses. We pay for all our gas; we pay to clean the car. I sometimes clean my car three times a night. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

Tom Werner transitioned from traditional cabbie to Lyft and Uber driver in 2017. Each app has its own quirks, he said, but “for most drivers, there’s not a lot of difference.”

He enjoys the work, but he was glad to land a full-time job driving for the VA hospital this year. Like his fellow drivers, he has seen returns drop as more people try out gig work.

“A lot of people jump into it thinking they’ll make a whole lot of money,” Werner said. “But then they’ll work a Friday night, make $100 and wonder, ‘Man, I don’t know if it’s worth it.’ ”

It still is for Werner, however. The single father thinks of Uber and Lyft work nights as his “adulting time,” when he gets to meet new people, hear stories and help people.

He also has taken up Postmates, DoorDash and Instacart work to supplement his income. He sometimes sees the same people he has given rides to answering the door to collect food or groceries.

“Driving is something I’ve always come back to,” Werner said. “It’s the people I meet, the excitement of it. Every ride is different, and every day is different.”

Drivers also take a measure of pride in the role they play in public safety on those busy weekend nights. 

Boosters of ride-sharing often point to a reduction in DUI numbers as a reason to welcome companies like Uber. Rice hopes more riders in Sioux Falls embrace the services, both because it would help drivers like her make a living and because she sees so many people who would be safer if they did.

“It can be a struggle to sit outside of the bar and watch people stumble into their car and drive off,” she said. “Most of those people are the ones who think they can get home because they only live a few blocks away. It would be five bucks for me to take them there.”

DUI numbers did decrease during Lyft’s first year in Sioux Falls, according to the Sioux Falls Police Department, but the monthly reductions in 2018 brought numbers closer in line with those from 2016. DUI arrests stood at 978 in 2017, 1,138 in 2017 and 991 in 2018.

Arrests in 2019 have been lower than 2018 for February, March, May and July but higher than 2018 for the other months.

There are factors such as fluctuating levels of grant money for saturation patrols at play with DUI arrest numbers, police spokesman Sam Clemens said, which makes it difficult to attribute changes directly to ride-sharing.

Renschler’s not surprised by the numbers. In his opinion, there are so many drunken drivers on the road that a serious reduction likely would mean that police aren’t committing the resources necessary to catch them.

But he also believes ride-sharing has helped in a different way. People who had a few drinks and questioned their fitness to drive three years ago now know they can hail a ride quickly and easily, he said, as opposed to waiting a half-hour for a cab they’d rather not ride in.

“I’ve had people get in my car and say, ‘I would drive drunk before I would get in a cab,’ ” he said. “My theory is that the casual drinker was getting caught before, but now they’re catching the habitual ones.”

Clemens couldn’t confirm that theory, but he did say the department supports any service that makes a sober ride more appealing than driving under the influence.

“If some people feel more comfortable with an Uber or a Lyft than a cab, that’s a great thing,” Clemens said. “Whatever they’re doing to avoid drinking and driving is a positive.”

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Inside the gig economy: Drivers form community around on-demand work

From Lyft to Uber, DoorDash to Postmates, they have tried them and then some. These drivers shared an inside look at what it’s really like to be part of the Sioux Falls gig economy.

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