Timing [your Uber trip request] is everything

Drivers love it when you are ready to get in to their car as soon as they arrive. But that’s not always the case. How long can they wait before time runs out?

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Occasionally I’ve received trip requests from people who wanted me to arrive at a certain time, despite the fact that they’d requested a driver to come straight away. I know this because I’ve received messages from them as I’m on the way to the pickup location or after I’ve arrived saying they want the ride at a particular time, or in half an hour, or something else along those lines. I chalk these up to either people not being familiar with the system, or to the mercurial nature of the scheduled ride option in the Uber app. Sometimes the button’s there, sometimes its not, and I’ve not been able to work out any reasons for the shifting state of its visibility.

The vast majority of the trip requests I get though are immediate. The passenger wants to go somewhere now, makes the request which gets fed to me, and I show up as quickly as I can. And most of the time the person making the request is ready to go when I arrive; they’re standing at the side of the road in front of the building set in the request, or they’re on the road between the parked cars leaning out looking for my arrival, or they come out of the house within moments of me getting there.

More often than not it takes me at least a couple of minutes to get to the pickup after accepting the ride. I think most people factor this in when they make a request, and get caught a little by surprise when I show up almost instantaneously. (Its rare, but it does happen sometimes.) That’s fair enough: as much as its generally expected that passengers should only request a ride when they’re ready to be picked up, I think it makes sense for people to use the time between request and arrival for last checks on anything they’re taking with them, or for them to check the estimate for when a driver might arrive, see that its going to be a little while and request it to ensure they’ll get where they’re going in time.

Even when it makes sense to give the person a bit of extra time to get to the car, it still doesn’t feel good as a driver, waiting for the passenger to show up. Until we actually start the ride, we don’t make any money. And we can’t start the ride until the passenger actually starts getting in the car. So if you’ve ordered an Uber, the car arrives and then you start saying your goodbyes to your friends for the next minute or two before actually getting in the car, that’s wasted time for the driver.

Now obviously every driver has different standards for what will make them rate a passenger less than 5 stars, and what issues are worth taking off how many stars. I’ve talked about how I feel when I can taste the cigarette smoke in the air when someone gets in my car, but that’s just me and not a flat thing across the board for all drivers. Making a driver at the pickup location for you to be ready is another one of those things that might get you a lower rating than you would like. The longer you make them wait, the more likely they are to rate you down, or rate you down by more.

Cancellation Fees

time-is-moneyMaybe not everyone knows this, but I’d be willing to bet that every Uber driver does: with Uber, once the driver has waited at the pickup location for at least five minutes, if the ride is cancelled then a cancellation fee is charged to the rider. Now the fee might be different in every city, but the principle is the same.

When I first started driving, I was worried about being too harsh or strict with that rule. At the same time, I didn’t want to wait all day for what might have been an accidental trip request – or for that matter a request that was a prank or some sort of malicious effort to mess with my day. For a long time I would pull up at the pickup location and wait. I’d look around and see if anyone was paying any attention my way, or had The Look but hadn’t spotted me yet. I’d give it a bit of time for something to happen, with the actual amount of time being fairly random, and more based on my mood than anything concrete, at which point I’d start a five minute timer. Once the timer was up, I’d have another look around to make sure no one was headed towards me, and then cancel the ride as a “Rider No Show”. I’d be on my way, and a few moments later I’d have my cancellation fee show up on my record for the day.

That always seemed fairly reasonable to me. It meant that I was giving people a reasonable amount of time to get to me, while making sure that if I did wind up cancelling I wasn’t going to have been waiting there for absolutely nothing. It felt like people got a chance, especially because if I was starting the timer I’d be sending the passenger a message to let them know I was there, in case they’d missed the notification of my arrival from the app itself.

Recently there’s been a lot of changes to the Uber app, some big, some small, and at least one that’s quite relevant to this topic. This particular change isn’t something you’d see as a passenger, because its actually a change in how the driver app works. Now when I arrive at the pickup location for a ride, the app starts counting down from five minutes. It happens automatically, based on the GPS tracking my location. Not only that, but if the counter reaches zero, it replaces the timer with a highlighted message that the request is now eligible for a cancellation fee, if it wasn’t already visible it shows the cancellation button, and has the button pulsing to draw attention to it. It may not be explicit, but its definitely encouraging us drivers to cancel the ride at that point.

It also means that every driver can see exactly how long it takes for you the passengers to get to the car from when they arrive at the spot. Rather than guessing about whether the passenger was quick and prompt or lazily took their time, we have the time right in front of us. I know a couple of drivers who’ve started to use that timer not only to cancel rides as quickly as they can to get the cancellation fees, but have also used it as a factor in rating the passengers who do get in the car, limiting how high a passenger can be rated based on how long the driver waited for them.

Again, not every driver will do this. But its more likely now that you’ll cop a cancellation fee if you aren’t prompt in getting to the Uber when it arrives to pick you up, or that you’ll be rated lower for making the driver wait for you. Bottom line, to avoid paying a cancellation fee or getting a low rating:

  • Request the Uber when you’re ready to get in, not in advance of you being ready.
  • Be visible at the pickup location if you can, and pay attention to the app and/or the road so you can see when your Uber arrives.
  • Get in the car – or at least acknowledge the driver – as quickly as you can.
  • If you’ve realised there’s a problem that means the driver’s going to have to wait for you, let them know as quickly as possible.
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Sydney Airport: Train v Uber

A not-at-all in-depth comparison of the costs of travelling from the Sydney Airport via train versus via Uber.

Before I go into today’s article, I want to mention something up front. On Sunday – when this was written – a construction crane collapsed onto an apartment building in Wolli Creek. At the time of writing, three people were reported injured, with the most serious being a possible broken leg. In addition to this, 200 residents of both buildings affected were evacuated. (The building the crane collapsed on, and the building it had been mounted on.) There are two reasons why I mention this up front:

  1. It’s what prompted me to publish this post, even though the incident itself isn’t Uber-related.
  2. I am aware that the people I’m going to refer to here were affected in a comparatively minor way. Obviously those injured and evacuated had and have it much worse.

If it seems like I’m being disrespectful to or dismissive of them, that is definitely not my intention. Except to say that I hope their situation is dealt with quickly, safely and fairly, I won’t be talking any further about them only because they’re not part of a topic relevant to this site.

Sunday mornings can be interesting times to drive with Uber. In fact Sundays tend to be pretty good throughout the day. Whereas on a weekday there’s usually a lull around lunch time, Sunday’s are pretty consistent in terms of being able to find passengers wanting a ride. The usual reason Sunday mornings are interesting is the number of passengers making the “Uber of shame” from the night before.

Last Sunday had a couple of rides that seemed like they could’ve qualified for that, one of which got me close to the airport. Knowing from experience what at least Melbourne and Brisbane Airports are like on Sundays, I figured it wouldn’t take too long for the queue of drivers to cycle through and for me to get a decent fare, so I headed to the domestic terminal waiting area. I wasn’t wrong, though the reason the queue moved as quickly as it did wasn’t one I was expecting.

When I first got to the pick-up area I was surprised by how quiet it looked. Given the speed with which the queue had moved for me I expected there to be quite a few people waiting to be picked up, along with a corresponding number of cars waiting for their passengers to appear. Instead it looked fairly empty. As a drove around the u-shape of the pick-up area, I got to a point where I could see where the passengers would be walking to reach the car park, and the outside entrance to the train station. What I saw there was not dissimilar to this:

003329-crowded-bus-stop[1]
Imagine this at the station entrance, but everyone has at least one large bag or suitcase with them. That’s roughly what it looked like on the day.
As I was processing this I saw someone waving at me who turned out to be my passenger, so I didn’t get much of a chance to sort it out in my head. (I’m sure you already have, but any friends of mine reading this, this is a perfect opportunity for you to make a joke about not being able to sort it out even if I had plenty of time to do it. Your welcome.) They told me that there’d been some sort of incident that meant the Airport train line was closed. Apparently it had only recently happened, with passengers being directed to different places by different people to catch replacement buses that were being organised but hadn’t started to arrive yet.

After I dropped the passenger off, I did some checking and sure enough found this alert:

I continued on through my day, while seeing similar scenes at Sydenham and Mascot stations, with people waiting at bus stops for their replacement bus (or in my case, their Uber) to arrive. When I got home, I saw some tweets that indicated people weren’t happy with how leaving Sydney Airport had gone:

What I found interesting and surprising with these and others that I saw, was that the people complaining seemed to be unaware of Uber. Whether they had never heard of it, had the idea that it wasn’t allowed for pick-ups at the airport (it’s been OK for over a year now), thought it was more expensive than using the train, or some other reason I don’t know. (It’s also possible that they reject the idea of using Uber given recent negative press. I would hope that’s not the case, for fairly obvious reasons.)

In terms of cost, I don’t have all the details and though the cost for a train trip is relatively easy to find out ahead of time, the cost of Uber trips are a little more tricky, given that they depend on the specific route and time taken for the trip. What I can do is show you the comparison between trips I’ve actually done and the costs for a trip to the nearest station. Like this:

[table id=1 /]

To keep things above board, the costs for the train trips come from Sydney Trains themselves, and were correct when written. (If poked about it to remind me, I’ll probably update them if prices change while this site is still active.) Any costs relating to getting from the station to the destination would be on top of these. The costs for the Uber fares are using UberX, from real rides I’ve driven since a couple of weeks before the date this is published. They include all costs to the passenger relating to the fare such as tolls, and have the potential to vary a bit based on the time of day the ride took place and the traffic on the route taken.

Also keep in mind that those train trip fares are for one person when an UberX can fit up to four people, though possibly less if you’ve got a lot of luggage, and that the Uber trip is right to your destination, which means unless you live on top of or at a train station you’ll either have less distance to walk with your bags, won’t have to get a bus or other ride from the station to where you’re going, or both.

So it seems that for short trips near the airport, Uber is cheaper than getting the train. It makes sense since the minimum Uber fare in Sydney is $9, less than the airport station access fee. A little beyond that and the train is cheaper for one person, but more expensive for two. Uber trips to the city that have to go through the city (so around the harbour foreshore) tend to be about the same cost as between two or three people on the train. None of the fares I’ve done in the time frame shown have been more expensive than four equivalent train fares.

Generally speaking, getting the train from the airport will be cheaper for one person than getting an Uber. The more people travelling though, the more likely that an Uber will be the cheaper option. But remember:

  • The train doesn’t get you to your front door, meaning either a walk, bus, taxi, Uber or ride from a friend to get all the way home. An Uber will go all the way in one go.
  • You may have to wait up to 15 minutes for the train to arrive to pick you up. An Uber will normally take no more than 5 minutes to arrive.
  • There’s no one to help you with your luggage on the train. Most Uber drivers will at least help you get your luggage into and out of their car.
  • Unless you happen to be on the airport line, you’ll have to change trains to get to your destination. An Uber will take you door-to-door.
  • Its tough getting even a section of a train carriage, let alone the whole thing to yourself. That means other people’s conversations, music, food, and general life intruding on your’s. You don’t share an Uber except with your friends or family. Your driver won’t force conversation or weird smells on you and will let you listen to your music in peace.
  • The closest thing to climate control on a train is being able to open a window, and that’s generally only on the older carriages. You can adjust the windows, adjust the temperature of the AC, even the direction the air vents point in an Uber.

With all those benefits – and any others you might think of – is it worth the money you might save to get the train instead of an Uber? Next time I’m flying somewhere, I know how I’ll be getting to and from the airport…

Too drunk to get to the Uber?

Sometimes that ‘one last drink’ turns out to be only one of the last for the night. Sometimes the goodbyes turn into a new round of conversations. Sometimes you just get sidetracked. If you’ve ordered an Uber, it might cost you some money too.

One upon a time, there was a fair Uber driver who had driving around Sydney all throughout the day. He had just decided to finish up for the day, and because he was so close to the airport he decided to finish with an airport run and head home from whatever magical place he would be taken to.

I’m not sure how long I can continue the fairy tale-style for this, so I’ll end it here before I embarras myself. At least, anymore than I do normally. Or that I have so far.

I can’t remember exactly the date, but it was a school night and it was about 10:30pm. I had just dropped someone off at Botany, and so decided that a pickup from the airport would be a good way to finish off the night, followed by possibly one or two trips on the way home. I had just turned on to General Holmes Drive to get ready for a pickup from the domestic terminal when I got a ping for a pickup. Though it shows the address for the pickup when the request comes through, I only ever look at it before accepting in fairly specific circumstances when the location matters to me. I didn’t care at that point, so I accepted and saw that it was for a pickup in La Perouse. “Well that explains the 18 minute estimate to get to the pickup,” I thought. Though it was unusual to get a pickup that would take that long to get to, given the time of night, and the location of the pickup, it made sense once I thought it through.

I turned the car around – legally by turning onto Botany Rd, not by u-turning across a median strip or at a set of lights, for the record – and headed to the location. As I got closer, I realised it was sending me to the NSW Golf Club. This got me excited, because the last time I had a pickup there (which was really the only other time I’d had a pickup there) was a trip across the Harbour Bridge and Spit Bridge, so I figured there’d be a good chance of a decent length trip for a solid fare. Though I was wanting to finish up, I’d happily have a long fare to finish up the day, even if it meant a longer than expected drive back home.

It was a longish drive to the pickup with very little traffic around. I had some time to think, and so pretended that this was the actual ride and estimated what I would earn for the fare if I was actually taking someone to the golf club from where I’d gotten the ping for the ride. I’ve gotten into the habit of doing this just so I’ve got a sense of how my day’s going financially, and also so that when I get the final figure after the ride’s over I can tell if something’s particularly wrong with the amount – when it does happen its usually around a toll that wasn’t added to the fare when it should have been. After working it out part way through the drive and allowing for the time and distance travelled before I started my calculations, my guesstimate was in the $18-20 range. I figured there was a good chance the actual ride would be worth at least that much, and so was fairly happy with myself in getting this, which seemed like it would be at least as good as an airport ride.

If you’ve not been to the NSW Golf Club, then seeing its address as being on ANZAC Parade is a little misleading. You do turn off ANZAC Parade, but its another kilometre or so through bushland on a narrow lane way before you get to the car park and clubhouse for the golf course. The last time I’d been there had been during the afternoon, so it was fairly easy to see where I was going, but this was definitely night time, with no street lights, and a scattering of speedbumps to keep things “interesting”. Though it is one lane each way (except where its only one way), it feels much narrower in the dark.

I got to the car park at the clubhouse, and saw some people just walking out the front door. I stopped near where they were walking to, and they seemed to be looking at my car in the same way that people tend to when they’ve booked me. It’s hard to describe, but if you’ve ever been a rideshare driver, you’ll know the look I’m talking about. However it turned out they weren’t my ride, someone else had apparently left the clubhouse a little before I’d got there, to bring the car to the rest of their friends. It took a couple of minutes to actually work that out on my part, but eventually they got into the other car and left. I found a parking spot in view of the exit, and switched the lights on my car to the parkers rather than the full headlights. Shortly after parking another pair of people wandered out, and started walking in my direction, but they were also heading to another car which happened to be near where I was parked. After this I decided I’d already been waiting a little while, so started my five minute timer. As much as I wanted the ride, I wasn’t going to hang around forever to get it. Which ultimately meant that I wasn’t going to get this ride.

I waited, wondering about why they hadn’t shown up yet. Had they pocket-Ubered somehow? Had they requested it, seen it was going to take a while for me to get there and figured they could do something else while waiting, and got side-tracked? Lost track of the time? Been too out of it to realise when they were notified I’d arrived? Did the queue at the bathroom – or the process once inside – take longer to progress than expected? Did they book it for the wrong golf course? And the more suspicious side of my brain wondered “Is this a prank by someone to play with the poor Uber driver?

The timer finished, and wanting to get this ride because I’d “invested” close to 30 minutes into it at this point, I still looked around to see if there was anyone coming, any sign that my passenger was going to show up, but apparently it wasn’t to be. So I cancelled the trip, and headed back the way I’d come. As I was doing this I realised it was too late to expect a ride from the airport, and being a school night I decided it was time to pack up and head home. However, I kept an eye out for a re-request of the ride from the golf club; unless they’d somehow accidentally requested a ride, there was a decent chance that even if they didn’t notice the ride had been cancelled on them that when they got out to the car park and no one was waiting for them they’d check their phone, notice and request a new ride. I also checked the passenger app and saw that I was the only driver anywhere remotely close to the club, so was confident that I’d get the request when it came through.

It never came through. At least not to me anyway. I got all the way back to the airport without a ping. Any doubts I had about heading home were put to rest at that point. I confirmed that I got my cancellation fee, which was a small consolation for the time spent. When that came through, it allowed me to see what ride had been booked by the anonymous passenger: it was to Balgowlah. Depending on the specifics, probably somewhere between $45-50. Compare that to the $18-20 it would have been to get to the pickup from where I was (not counting the return part of that journey, because with few exceptions in Sydney you’d have to retrace many if not all of your steps to get back from La Perouse). Compare it to the $8 I got for my troubles.

If you’re ever surprised by getting a low rating from a driver, its worth thinking about whether you wasted their time in any way: the pickup location was wrong and they had to go somewhere else to get you, you took you’re time getting to the car, you decided to have a chat with friends before getting to the car, or at least confirming that you were the passenger, … Anything that delays your driver in a way that they don’t get paid for, is a chance – depending on the driver and the circumstances – for your rating to go down. Please keep it in mind next time you request an Uber.

The frustrations caused by stinky passengers

Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue. And some days when you’re the statue it feels like you’re surrounded by ibises instead of pigeons. Though an exaggeration, here’s one day that felt like that for me.

Almost every day driving for Uber, something happens that will really annoy me. The vast majority of those would be things that others drivers do on the road; its one of the reasons I have the calming music on when I’m driving, as anyone who’s commented on it while in my car would know. But sometimes its what passengers do – or would-be passengers – that inspire in me the kind of feeling where you want to give something a Basil Fawlty-style “damn good thrashing”.

One such day started with me in the city on other business. (To be fair, the day had started quite some time before as it was about 7pm, but it was the start of my working day that day.) I figured it’d be a good time to switch on and possibly get someone headed home after work, so I did. Sure enough, within a minute or two I got a ping for a pickup in Surry Hills, not too far from Central Station. I was slightly concerned by the rating of 4.2 that I was shown for the passenger; at least at the time of writing its the lowest I’ve ever seen for a passenger. As I approach I spot someone on the other side of the road standing exactly where the pin on the map is, so I drove past. I knew there was a roundabout at the next intersection where I could make a u-turn without hassle – I wasn’t driving past him because the guy looked shady or I was being nasty. I pull up next to him, and sure enough he gets in the car along with another guy who had crossed the road. As they’re getting in I start the trip, and am rewarded with a destination in Bella Vista. (I don’t remember the exact address, and even if I did I wouldn’t put here: even with my small readership I know not to intentionally take away someone’s anonymity like that.)

If you’re not familiar with Sydney’s geography and don’t know where Bella Vista is in relation to the Sydney CBD, you’re not alone because I didn’t at the time and to be honest I’m still not exactly sure. I could see from the map at the time that it was quite a distance away, and when I got the navigation details showing on my phone, I was able to estimate that my share of the fare after Uber’s cut was going to be in the $55-$60 range; an excellent start to a day that, if I’m being honest could and should have started earlier than it had. The only down side to these longer rides that go away from the “core” area is the unpredictability of the next ride: how long will it be before I get the request, how far and for how long will I have to drive to get it and then get to it… Those all vary a lot more away from the core than when in and around it, and can result in a lot more down time waiting than otherwise. Still, you take the ride and hope for the best at the other end, especially when the longer the ride, the more it tends to at least help pay for any delays afterwards.

“Seinfeld” Season 4, Episode 21: “The Smelly Car”

Anyway, back to the ride. It took me a few moments, but I was hit with the strong smell of cigarette smoke. Normally when that happens I get some sort of warning, usually by seeing the passenger putting out the cigarette they were smoking as they see me approach to pick them up. Maybe it was the “sneaky” second passenger I wasn’t aware of that had been smoking, but either way all I could do was try to subtly limit my breathing and cover my mouth to try and lower how much poison I was consuming, and turn the dial on the air freshener up to 11. It only goes to 3, but I tried nonetheless. Oh, did I mention that it started raining pretty much the moment the smell hit me, so I couldn’t put the window down either. I now understood why their rating might have been as low as it was.

So I’m slowly dying, and they’re talking about whatever it is – when there’s more than one passenger I tend to listen only close enough to see if I’m being asked a question or being engaged some way – when the first guy says that they’ll be going to Chippendale first to drop off the second guy, or for the second guy to get something from his apartment and then keep going… That part was confusing, because the story seemed to change at several points. At each point I say I’m fine with the detour, especially seeing as its likely only to be a very small one from our path already. Then they go back to discussing “how long it’ll take”, which I’m trying to follow to work out whether I’ll be waiting for one or both of them to go in and then for one or both to come back to the car before going to the end of the journey. I say “trying to follow”, because again it was confusing as to what was going to happen – either they were actually working it out or they needed more improv classes to respond to what their partner was saying, not get to the line they had in mind already. Eventually its decided that they’ll end the ride with me at Chippendale, because they don’t know how long it will take there. (I still couldn’t work out what the “it” was.)

Though it was disappointing to miss out on the big fare – it wound up being about $50 less than what I’d estimated at the beginning – the way the smell seemed to be permeating in the car, I’d be happy to get them out before the smell became a permanent fixture. It was even less disappointing as the ride was finishing up. They went back to whatever conversation they were having, which I’m hearing even less of as I’m concentrating on navigating the narrow streets of Chippendale at night in the rain. While making a turn, I thought I heard a racial epithet. (I’m definitely not repeating it here.) As I started to dismiss it in my head as having misheard it, I heard it again, this time clear as day and in a context that eliminated the possibility of it being even a poor taste joke let alone an intelligent discussion. I’d like to think that if I hadn’t been in the process of pulling over to let them out when I heard it clearly that I would have kicked them out. I’m not sure I have the confidence to do that, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t say anything about it to them even as they were leaving. I did however ensure that their rating didn’t improve, and reported them to Uber as well for good measure.

I’d never been so relieved to miss out on a long ride like what was originally booked.

Don’t tease me, bro!

From visions of swimming in Scrooge McDuck’s kiddy pool to the reality of a normal job: the occasional highs and lows of mistaken rider destinations.

Photo looking across a lake to a country hotel building, with trees and a mountain range in the background.
A photo of the The Carriages Hotel and Vineyard, courtesy of their website.

On a wet Friday night, with Sydney surging between people wanting to get home or to their after-work events – and trying to stay dry in the process – I was driving from the vicinity of the airport towards the CBD. I got a ping for a ride, and managed to dodge enough of the traffic at the time to get to the pickup reasonably quickly. I’m feeling good because I’m about to get the first surge ride I’ve had in what feels like forever.

After a brief mishap of pulling over too early on the road – in my defence it was only two doors too early, it was dark and difficult to see the street numbers, and as I approached there were people that looked like they were waiting at the kerb with a phone out, which is a classic Uber-passenger-to-be vision and otherwise unusual in the rain – I stopped in front of the correct address, and my passengers got in to the car. I start the ride, go through the usual greeting ritual of everyone confirming who everyone else is, which is followed by me confirming where the destination for the ride is. To do that, I look down at my phone which is now showing this (as tweeted on the night):

Without the knowledge of an experienced Sydney Uber driver, you may not get the full impact of this. Hopefully you’ll recognise that that represents a trip that’s much longer than the average, by quite a large margin. Because I’ve heard stories from passengers and drivers about long trips that (supposedly) actually happened like to the Hunter Valley or to Melbourne, I’ve occassionally wondered how much they’d be worth. So I instantly knew that the trip would have a fare of a few hundred dollars, shortly followed by the realisation that this fare had a 1.5x surge. (I’ve since worked out that my cut of the fare would have been in the vicinity of $350-$400, depending on the exact route and traffic.)

Unfortunately, my visions of becoming Scrooge McDuck and diving into huse pool of money (which on reflection would be closer to a kiddy pool, and that’s taking it in coins rather than a nicely thick wad of notes) quickly disappeared like the splash from an Olympic diver. The passengers wanted to go to the Carriageworks in Redfern, not Carriages Boutique Hotel & Vineyard in the Hunter Valley. It was just a simple mistake of entering the first few letters, and selecting the wrong option from the list. Disappointing, but completely understandable.

For the record, I’ve not been paid by anyone to post this. However, should The Carriages want me to do a review and post it here and anywhere else they’d like me to, I’d be happy to discuss it. I’d be baffled as to why they’d want me to, but still happy to discuss it.