Wear: Soon to be a retiree, reporter casts net into ride-hailing pond

Aug 31, 2018
American-Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear tried his hand at driving for Lyft last week. On Tuesday, he drove 140 miles, had seven calls and ferried 11 people. He made $86, or about $14 an hour if you don’t count the $15 or so of gas he used or the wear and tear on his car. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When I was growing up in Austin, it was an article of faith in our family that Wears are terrible at fishing.

No matter where on a lake or river we might drop a line — Dad, Mom or any of their three sons — inevitably the bass or catfish would be dining somewhere else. Or if they were nearby, a Wear-cast lure would be insufficiently alluring or our minnow minimally appetizing. A cast would occur, the bobber would sit there in repose for several minutes, then the line would be reeled in just to cut the boredom.

Fishing, consequently, became a pastime that I dropped in adulthood.

So it was with some surprise, when I began driving for Lyft last week as part of an exploration of potential side jobs in my coming retirement, that I found myself likening it to fishing. And, to some degree, liking it.

Greater Austin, in this context, is a great dammed lake with all the fish — potential ride-hailing customers — hidden electronically beneath the surface. And all around me, invisible around a digital bend or in a cove, are other fishers of men and women: Lyft or RideAustin or Uber drivers, likewise casting about for rides through their apps.

Everyone wants a nibble, that sudden notice on your iPhone or Android that Tom or Elaine or Oscar desires a ride. Do you set the hook by tapping on the phone? Almost certainly yes, given the stretches of idleness with no bites.

And all the drivers, I suspect, are looking for the whopper, the $20 to $30 ride that will help make the day’s drive worth it.

During several years of covering the ride-hailing wars in Austin, I developed something of a soft spot for Lyft. Yes, like the hyperaggressive Uber, they’re a big business and they’re out to make big money. But I got the impression that Lyft officials, unlike their Uber counterparts, actually believed in the rhetoric about how everyone ultimately could become a sporadic carpooler, keeping some cars off the road and pollutants out of the air. Give them points, at least, for being sincere in their search for Utopia.

RideAustin? I was afraid the calls for service would be too scarce, both for this column and later if I keep doing this after the final bell at the American-Statesman. And I wasn’t eager to slog through the sign-up process for two apps — or to figure out how to toggle between them later while trolling for rides. As I said in last week’s column about scooter scavenging, technology is not my friend.

So, Lyft. After getting approved (they didn’t require fingerprinting, as you might have heard), I didn’t brave an initial ride for about a week because I was engaged with Lime and its scooters. But I did go buy (for almost $30) a magnetic phone mount for my dashboard, and I spent another $20 getting my car washed.

Then, almost on a whim while returning from lunch on Interstate 35, I flipped on the app. Within a minute, “Willie” requested a ride. The app said he was at 1500 Red River St., basically at Dell Seton Medical Center. Oddly excited, and discombobulated while driving the upper deck at 55 mph, I wrongly took the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard exit rather than 15th Street. Great start, rookie.

I got to 15th and Red River, and the corner was deserted, so I turned north and went to the hospital entrance. No one among the four people outside was staring at their phone or peering at my car.

Panicking a little, I drove down to the emergency room entrance. Nobody. Back up at the main hospital entrance a couple minutes later, a woman on a bench looked at me and, with a cross look, shooed me away.

I parked on Red River and, using the app, called Willie. I got voice mail. At that point, I closed the app sheepishly and drove back to my newspaper workplace. I guess Willie and I were never fated to meet in this life.

I got a message from Lyft later that day chastising me for canceling too many rides. One failed assignation, it appears, meets that stern standard.

So the next day at noon on a Saturday, hardly prime time in the ride-hailing game, I decided to try again just to break the ice. Success! I took Mark, a sushi chef at Uchi living in Tarrytown, to his job. Then I drifted over to near East Austin and was summoned by Gabriel and Courtney, who had just finished lunch and were returning to his Rainey Street home. Then — jackpot! — Jil, a former college softball player, pinged me in Travis Heights and wanted a ride all the way out to Circle C for a barbecue where her husband already had been smoking meat for 14 hours.

I made $33, driving about 50 miles counting the dead periods between calls and the drive home from Circle C. So, maybe $5 of gas. Of course, using the IRS mileage rate of 54.5 cents a mile for business usage, driving those miles cost just more than $27. And remember, I started about $50 in the hole with that phone mount and the wash.

I also discovered that ride-hailing uses up a lot of phone data — no Wi-Fi available — and phone juice. I had to stop by the newsroom and get my phone charger.

I decided to devote an entire Tuesday to driving to get a better sense of this gig. In about six hours on the road — I had a long lunch with a former Statesman colleague and stopped by the newsroom for a while — I drove 140 miles, had seven calls and ferried 11 people. I made an additional $86, or about $14 an hour if you don’t count the $15 or so of gas I used or the wear and tear on the car.

The day started in the 7 a.m. hour with me taking two folks to work whose cars had failed them. Daniel, who had moved here from Seattle just a week earlier for a new tech job, had rented a car because his vehicle was in the shop for repair. Then his apartment complex towed the rental car overnight despite his having put the proper sticker on the dashboard. Thus, Lyft. Welcome to Austin, Daniel.

It was a glum ride.

The highlight of my day was a “shared ride,” starting when I picked up Vanessa near Quality Seafood on Airport Boulevard. Then, confusing both of us, the app said I was supposed to get “Ben” near U.S. 183. OK. Then, as we headed to the Arboretum for Vanessa’s job, the app told me to pick up Tania. I exited U.S. 183 and circled back.

Tania turned out to have her 2-year-old son with her. Named … Ben. Three of us in one car. Nice.

By the time we got to the Arboretum, the six of us were like a little family. We even got out and posed for a picture. Then I took Ben No. 2 to his job at Indeed, and continued all the way out to Steiner Ranch where Tania works at a day care center.

By 5 p.m., after I dropped off two more Indeed workers at their homes — the company covers Lyft rides for its workers because of a parking crunch at the Loop 360 office building — I was a bit bleary. And using that IRS rate as a yardstick, I really didn’t clear much money.

On the other hand, after just eight hours of driving, my bank account had $120 in it. And I had fun meeting all those people. And it is undeniably a charge when the cellphone tells you that someone wants you to come fetch them. So it’s seductive as something to do now and again in retirement.

Or maybe I’ll just take up fishing.