Hello, is it me you’re looking for?

I can see it in your eyes, I can see it in your smile, You’re the reason I’m pulling up at the kerb and putting my hazard lights on, hoping not to get booked for stopping in a No Stopping zone.

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The map says I’m coming from the exact opposite direction you’re looking, but I’m sure you’ll spot me soon enough…
I’ve spoken about “The Look” before. It’s something we drivers learn to recognise to help give us a chance in picking out who our passenger is for the next ride we’re about to go on. It usually involves someone standing on the footpath, holding their phone and looking between it and up the road towards the cars coming towards them. It’s easier when there’s luggage on the ground next to them (as well as a clue that we’re likely heading to the airport) and a source of frustration (and temptation to cancel) when their smoking a cigarette, doubly so when they spot you and immediately go to put the cigarette out.

A quick personal observation is that it often seems these people are looking in the wrong direction in that glance up from their phone. That’s despite having just seen which direction their driver is coming from, courtesy of the map in the app on their phone. Yes, they could be looking at something other than the Uber app, such as emails, Twitter, an extremely well written blog that hasn’t been updated in a while, hoping to see a new entry to brighten their day. And yes, I could be remembering the ones who look the wrong way more so than the ones who look in the right direction. Even so, there’s more that look the other way than you might think.

Anyway, where was I? Right; the Look. One of the reasons why we pick up on the cues passengers give is that we often don’t have much else to go on. As a passenger, you get to see the name of the driver, but also a photo of their face, the make and model of the car they’re driving as well as its number plate. Also, if you’re tracking the car and are outside by the road ready for it to arrive, you get to match it up with the timing of its arrival and the direction its coming from. To be fair the last one can be off if the GPS is spotty where you are getting picked up from, but you should still be able to get an idea from all of that combined.

On the other side of that equation, drivers get the name of the passenger and the location to pick them up from. Now let’s ignore the possibility that the person who made the ride request might not be the person actually getting in the car. I’ve had numerous rides where a spouse or partner has booked the ride for their significant other. Parents have booked rides for their child or vice versa. Sometimes friends have booked for friends. In one case, an assistant or similarly professionally-related person booked the ride for a former presenter on a children’s ABC TV show. (Hint: that week we went through the round window to my childhood.)

Even assuming the person who booked the ride is the person, or at least one of the people going on the ride, its still tricky for the driver. Though the name can be a clue to help the driver know who to look out for, sometimes they can be useless. To be fair, most of the time they at least give some indication of gender. “John” is a pretty strong clue that I should be looking for a man, “Amy” is likewise a pretty good indicator to keep an eye out for a woman. On the rare occasion that the name shown is a series of non-English characters generally indicate that I’m looking for someone of Asian heritage, or on a couple of occasions someone from the Middle East. On the flip side of this is when I see a name like “Sam”, “Alex” or “Chris”, or ones that I’ve not heard before or otherwise don’t recognise. There I don’t know the gender or ethnicity, so it could be anyone.

Also the location for the pickup isn’t always a helpful indicator either. Sometimes its that the pickup is actually from number 26 instead of 28 as it says in the app. Perhaps its a building that’s on the corner of an intersection, and neither side is obviously “the front” or the likely candidate for someone to wait for a car. Other times its the combination of the app deciding to not indicate which side of the road the pickup is set for, and not being able to see which side of the street has the even or odd numbers. (For the record, if you’re wondering why your Uber driver doesn’t come down your long driveway for the pickup, this is probably why. If its an issue, call them when they’re on their way!) And then there are the times where there’s nowhere legal, or at least out of other people’s way, to stop making it difficult to wait for someone who may or may not be waiting in view for me.

Most of the time its not an issue. I show up, and either the passenger is there waiting for me at the right spot and gets in straight away, or I find the spot and the passenger comes to me. On occasion though it doesn’t work out. There are times where I will never know what went wrong, because I waited the minimum five minutes with no sign of anyone even looking my way let alone coming to the car, and no contact from the passenger through the app, so I cancelled the trip and moved on. Other times they cancel on me, with or without notice, and possibly before or after I arrive at the location. Then there are the weird ones where someone else gets in the car. There’s been four times in several thousand trips I’ve accepted where someone has gotten in my car and not been my allocated passenger.

I don’t really understand how that’s possible, especially given how often I’ll see my eventual passenger double- and triple-check the number plate of my car against what’s on their phone, followed up by a tap on the passenger window while mouthing “Uber” at me, and then followed by opening the door and asking “Are you <name>?”

At the end of the day, no matter how sure we might be that you are our passenger, we never know it until you actually get in. Sometimes not even then. So please help us out. Pay attention to what’s happening around you, and look for your driver and their car. You’re more likely to identify us definitively than we are you.

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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?

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┬ábut 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.