My first thought as Bobbie McGee and I pull up at East Memphis’ Hilton Hotel is that we’d accidentally interrupted some kind of Panhellenic, duck-themed nuptials. A swarm of wedding guests, fresh out of a reception, mingles with college kids, club-goers, and corporate types in Ducks Unlimited polos. People stand around in small clusters, blocking traffic and drinking beer. It is 10:30 on a Saturday night in early August. The party is just starting.
An Uber driver, my new acquaintance McGee is looking for her next passenger, who, the GPS informs us, is somewhere in the throng. “Does that look like him?” she asks me, pointing at a bearded man standing on the sidewalk, surrounded by a group of college guys in golf shorts.
I can hear bottles breaking on nearby pavement, following a chorus of whoop-whoops ! She shows me a picture of her passenger on her phone for comparison, then waves out the window in the bearded man’s direction. He looks at his phone, waves back at us, and heads toward our car.
We are about three hours into McGee’s overnight shift, in the part of the evening when she typically ferries people to bars. It will be the start of a long night. In the past, McGee has driven passengers too drunk to know where they live, some of whom were angry or sexually aggressive. But for the most part her passengers are friendly people who don’t want to drive under the influence. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant,” she had joked to me when we met that night, “but I’ve probably saved hundreds of lives.”
McGee is a bubbly woman in her mid-thirties who was a stay-at-home mom before she began driving to earn extra cash. She has been driving for 18 months, initially for Lyft and then for Uber, both companies that connect passengers to drivers through smartphone apps. On a good week, McGee can earn upwards of $700 before expenses. She enjoys the work. “I love meeting people,” she tells me as we wait, “and I feel like I always know what is going on in the city.”
The bearded guy, his fraternity brother, and an energetic blonde girl all pile into her hybrid’s backseat, beers in hand. “What is this Midtown place people are talking about?” the bearded guy’s friend asks. “Take us to Midtown!”
I introduce myself as a writer, and they introduce themselves as being from out of town (the bearded guy to me: “Just tell ’em Arkansas is the shit!”). Bobbie makes small talk while the blonde girl, a Texan, pulls out her phone to show me a video of her sorority sister twerking.
“She’s great! She’s amazing! She’s not really this crazy in real life!” the girl says. We have known each other for less than five minutes, but it feels like we are on the fast track to becoming friends.
“Let’s go! I’m trying to get drunk tonight!” shouts the bearded Arkansan, who seems well on his way to achieving his goal.
McGee just smiles. “Welcome to my life,” she says.
The last time I took a Yellow cab in Memphis was home from Beale Street at three in the morning, sometime in February of 2014. I was leaving Silky O’Sullivan’s with an intoxicated law student who had recently passed the bar exam, who informed our (saintly) driver at least 15 times during the ride that she was now “a [expletive redacted] lawyer!”
The only other time I can remember taking a cab in Memphis was home from the airport for the holidays in 2008. Neither were particularly memorable experiences, but they stand out as rare instances that I took a vehicle for hire in my hometown. If this city has its Louis De Palmas from Taxi , cigar-chomping guys who fog the mirror as they crankily run up a meter, I wouldn’t know. Like most people in Memphis, I usually drive.
But that was before the summer of 2014, when Uber and Lyft debuted in town. It happened quickly. One weekend people were complaining about having to sober up before driving home, and the next they were tapping away on their devices and saying techy-sounding things like, “I’ll just order us a car via this new app. Hope there is no surge pricing!”
I drank the Kool-Aid too. It seemed like common sense to pay $6 for a ride home if I felt I might have had a few too many, rather than risk a DUI.
Uber and Lyft are largely successful (though whether they are worth their current multibillion-dollar valuations is debatable) because of drunk people. “Picking up drunk people is weird,” says Brandon Sams, a local comedian who sometimes works as an Uber driver. “But in terms of keeping drunk driving to an absolute minimum, I think the app is really successful.”
As Memphis’ entertainment districts grow, so does demand for an alternative to what McGee calls the “antique system” of taxi cabs. Uber is easy to use if you have a credit card and live in a readily accessible area. All you have to do is download the app, sign a lengthy waiver, and press a few buttons. Your driver’s license picture gets displayed in a friendly bubble at the bottom of the screen and you can watch your driver arrive via the GPS.
Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), as Uber and Lyft are technically classed, also streamline the process of becoming a driver. People like McGee don’t have to push through a lot of red tape to start working. What results is a weekend market made up of casual drivers or, as traditional transportation company owner Ham Smythe puts it, the growth of “the gig economy.”
The gig economy allows anyone with spare time, a decent driving record, and a four-door car to make a little money on the side. Drivers set their own hours, pay for their own gas, and maintain their own vehicles.
The difference between local cab companies and the TNCs lies in what Catherine Rampbell of the Washington Post calls “the shifting of risk off corporate balance sheets and onto the shoulders of individual Americans, who may not realize what kinds of liabilities they are taking on.”
Both drivers and passengers assume the risk for getting in a car with a stranger. McGee will be the first to tell you that Uber doesn’t care about her. “They can’t. There are so many drivers. How could they?” she asks. But she says the perks outweigh the disadvantages.
Besides the schedule flexibility, there are lots of opportunities to make extra cash. For instance, when Uber began operating in Oxford, Mississippi, the company gave bonuses to drivers from Memphis who spent at least an hour per night in the town. McGee drove to Oxford every day, hung around long enough to give a a few rides to Ole Miss students, and cashed in. “It was great,” she says.
But it didn’t last. Uber and Lyft were only in Oxford for a couple months before the city banned their operations. “The police set up stings,” McGee tells me, “and we would go thinking we were going to get a ride, and instead we’d get a ticket.”
Oxford has joined Eugene, Oregon, and Las Vegas as cities that have outlawed the companies, while New York City and Boston are in ongoing negotiations to regulate their operations. San Francisco and Atlanta have welcomed the TNCs. In many areas, Tennessee included, legal battles have moved from local to state courts.
In Memphis, a proposal was briefly batted around the City Council that would have required Uber and Lyft to release information about their operations to the city, but it died this past spring. In April, the state of Tennessee passed friendly legislation that effectively declared the Volunteer State open for ride-share business. Local Councilman Kemp Conrad, who led the charge on the unrealized Memphis legislation, is an advocate of the services. “I don’t see how it is much different than accepting a ride from a friend,” he told me.
At face value, riding in an Uber or Lyft is indeed not that different than accepting a ride from a friend. But “friend” only in the Facebook sense of the word, meaning someone with whom you have exchanged a nominal amount of personal data via the internet. After McGee and I drop off the drunk Arkansans in Overton Square (the bearded man’s parting words: “If y’all wanna get out of your little Uber car and learn how to two-step, just call me up!”), we collect a comparatively quiet couple who are headed home to watch a movie. “I like taking Ubers because the people are people,” a young woman tells me from the backseat. She says she disliked the formality of cabs.
“You’ll meet the whole spectrum of humanity,” McGee elaborates later. “I’ve been a therapist, a shoulder to cry on, a temporary best friend and confidante … you name it.”
I ask why people were so comfortable letting her into their lives. “Well,” she replies, “they’ve already given me their personal information. Maybe they feel like we already know each other?”
Is it dangerous to be an Uber or Lyft passenger? Ham Smythe, owner of Premiere Transportation, the parent company of Yellow Cab, advocates for heavier regulation of Uber and Lyft in Tennessee. He points out that the companies’ background checks are not as thorough as those done by his company. “We do a fingerprint background check. We are required to do regular drug testing, and we are happy to do it. In a place like Memphis, at the confluence of three states, you can have a record all over the place. The kind of background checks Uber and Lyft do don’t catch that.”
Richard Crawford, a longtime professional driver who contracts with Premiere, says he knows people in Memphis who drive for Lyft and Uber because they “can’t get back in the cab business.” But Crawford also says that unregulated driving in Memphis is nothing new. “This city is open for anybody,” Crawford tells me. “If your boyfriend ain’t got a job he can just go up to half these hotels and pretend to be a driver. Everything that can go on does go on in this city.”
Smythe says that where his drivers have an edge is in their experience. “People under-appreciate the professionalism it takes to be a driver,” he says. “If you have already had a long day at another job and you are driving for Uber after work, how thoughtful are you going to be about driving someone? Maybe you will be. Maybe you won’t.”
After we finish a couple of rides downtown (a group of neurosurgery students whom McGee quizzes about her frontal cortex and an older couple who wanted to talk about Kansas City and barbeque), McGee and I head back east. She makes most of her money on long drives. Her usual circuit is back and forth from East Memphis to downtown until 5 a.m. every Friday and Saturday night.
I found myself wondering how many women drivers (Uber reports that roughly 14 percent of its drivers are female) work an overnight shift like McGee. While Uber’s liability issues have received a lot of attention in terms of passenger safety, it struck me that the onus may actually be on drivers who welcome hundreds of inebriated strangers into their vehicles every week. McGee’s time driving has not been without incident.
“Last night,” she tells me as we drove, “an older guy was trying to get with this 22- year-old little thing, and she rejected him. So after I dropped her off, he sat in the front with me. He tried to put his hand down my shirt and grab my crotch. I pulled the car over and told him he could walk if he didn’t stop immediately.
“[That] doesn’t happen often,” she continues. “It has happened maybe three times in 18 months. Most people are great.”
Most people are great, but crazy things happen. McGee says she has picked up someone from the scene of a crime (“A drunk driver had crashed and killed a mailbox, and called for an Uber to get himself home!”) and driven someone to the scene of a crime. (“He was trying to leave a note for his ex, and she had a restraining order against him. Cops swarmed my car.”) Every driver I’ve met has at least one harrowing experience under their belt: Brandon Sams remembers he once picked up a woman who was being forcibly evicted from her home by her former partner and his new girlfriend. “She was crying,” Sams says, “and they kept throwing all of her possessions in my car.”
Uber and Lyft use a stringent rating system for both passengers and drivers that is supposed to promote safety. If you dip below 3.5 stars as either a passenger or a driver, you are banned from the app. While this may not contribute to the most accurate of ratings (“What’s the point of even having five stars?” a friend of mine asked. “Why not just have pass or fail?”), it provides for a feeling of transparency. Recent studies suggest that people feel more secure when they think a product has been peer-tested.
Another name for the gig economy is the peer-to-peer economy. Or, in its most optimistic iteration, the sharing economy. But terms like “peer-to-peer” and “sharing” suggest a rosy vision of tech, one that whitewashes the more complicated economics of how technology rapidly changes industries. It is hard to say, at this point, whether companies like Uber and Lyft have proven themselves as sustainable businesses. “I’m an old-school business guy,” Ham Smythe says. “A lot of the way venture capital works and a lot of the way the tech economy works is very foreign to me … but I do know you can lose money, so long as people throw money at you.”
Many critics have balked at Uber’s $50 billion valuation (Lyft is valued at a comparatively sober $2.5 billion.) Valleywag blogger Justin Singer, in an economic analysis of the companies, wrote, “What we are seeing is the very definition of an artificial market subsidized by huge infusions of outside capital.”
But when I ask one of the neurosurgery students we drove what he thought of the $50 billion figure, he replied, “Are they overvalued? Absolutely not. I would pay $200 per ride to avoid the risk of a DUI.”
If you think about it in this kind of light — that Uber may well be lowering the amount of drunk driving, which the DUI Foundation estimates to cost $114.3 billion in public funds each year — it seems the tech companies actually might not be overvalued, after all. But what does this speculation mean for drivers like McGee? Not a whole lot. The work is good now. But nothing is guaranteed.
McGee and I give a couple a ride back to Germantown from a nice restaurant in East Memphis, then head back downtown to pick up what would be my final ride of the night (unlike McGee, I didn’t make it until 5 a.m.).
Her phone pings, directing us to Main Street, where we meet a group of people dressed in traditional Indian formal wear. They are all leaving a wedding. A man comes over to the car and asks McGee if she could wait a minute. “We are going to send a bunch of kids with you,” he tells us.
(“Driving kids can be tough,” she says. “But I know how to handle them because I have my own.”)
We wait for five minutes, and then we wait some more. People exit bars on Main. It is now well after midnight, but the area shows no sign of calming down. It seems likely that McGee would have steady work all night.
Eventually, the Indian gentleman comes back to tell us the kids decided to ride in another vehicle. “I’m sorry!” he tells McGee. “Charge me for the whole thing! Just please don’t give me a bad rating. I want to keep using Uber.”