×

Jim Kenyon: Uber Offers Freedom to Drivers, Passengers

  • Lee Achmoody, of Lebanon, N.H., talks about working for Uber on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, while parked in a lot at the Army National Guard Armory in Lebanon. Achmoody said he has been working as an Uber driver with his 2010 Ford Expedition for about six months. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lee Achmoody, of Lebanon, N.H., has his phone on a car mount with his Uber Driver app opened on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, while parked in a lot at the Army National Guard Armory in Lebanon. Achmoody said he will park near Dartmouth Coach in Lebanon to pick up passengers coming off the bus. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lee Achmoody, of Lebanon, N.H., pulls off with his 2010 Ford Expedition to pick up a passenger while working for Uber on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in a parking lot of the Army National Guard Armory in Lebanon. Achmoody said he has been working with Uber for about six months. "I do it for the money," he said. "But it gets me out and I meet a lot of people." (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Uber driver Joy Tyo, of Lebanon, N.H., says hello to another Uber driver at Dartmouth Coach in Lebanon, on Dec. 27, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Joy Tyo, of Lebanon, N.H. is an Uber driver in the Upper Valley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lee Achmoody, a 74-year-old retired trucker, sits in his Ford Expedition in an empty Lebanon parking lot waiting for his smartphone to ping — the distinct sound that alerts him to a potential “pax.”

He has 12 seconds to tap his phone’s screen to let the pax know that he’s accepted the assignment and is on his way. If Achmoody is lucky, he might catch a surge.

The life of an Uber driver.

Uber, the ride-hailing app, has been around since 2010, but only in the last eight months or so has it gained traction in the Upper Valley. Two dozen drivers, including three full-timers, now operate primarily in and around the Lebanon-Hanover-Hartford zone.

Uber, the flagship of the so-called sharing economy, according to Forbes magazine, has proven mutually beneficial to drivers and their pax. (In case you haven’t guessed or are like me, a technology neophyte, that’s Uber lingo for passengers.)

Headquartered in San Francisco, Uber grew into a multibillion-dollar company by quickly earning a reputation among riders as a less costly and more user-friendly alternative to taxis.

Uber also has had little trouble signing up drivers. In 2015, the company announced it had 327,000 active drivers in the U.S.

As independent contractors, Uber drivers make their own hours and use their own vehicles. They work as little or as much as they want.

Achmoody leaves his home in Lebanon around 10 a.m. and returns by dark — earlier if business is slow or something else comes up. He can even work from his living room. Just turn on the Uber app and respond to pings that come his way.

He’s truly his own boss.

Uber takes a 25 percent cut of fares. In exchange, it handles billing and pays drivers electronically on a weekly basis. (For a fee, drivers can receive payment after each fare.) The company also provides auto liability insurance.

No doubt the ride-hailing industry has its detractors. (More on that later.) But it’s hard to deny that Uber and Lyft, its lesser-known counterpart, are becoming an increasingly important part of the Upper Valley’s transportation network.

Friends getting together for a night on the town don’t have to worry about who plays designated driver. A waitress without a car no longer has to figure out how she’ll get home when her shift ends at midnight. A cancer patient trying to maintain his independence doesn’t have to rely on family or a bus to get to chemotherapy sessions.

All it takes to book a ride is a smartphone. Riders learn in an instant when a driver can pick them up and the estimated cost to reach their destination.

No money changes hands. (After downloading the Uber app, customers give the company their credit card information, which also can be used to tip drivers.)

Getting a handle on Uber’s fees is a little like playing the stock market. They go up and down. When I checked last week, a ride from Lebanon to Hanover costs anywhere from $8 to $20.

Why such a range?

Uber is all about supply and demand economics. When there’s a surge (more Uber lingo) in bookings, the price goes up. Prices also fluctuate, depending on whether a driver is in the immediate area or two towns over when a booking is made.

While drivers spend much of their time in the Hanover-Lebanon-Hartford area, they’re more than willing to cover the Upper Valley’s outlying communities and beyond.

Last Thursday at about 11 p.m., a rider booked a 30-mile trip from Windsor to Walpole, N.H. The driver took home $50, plus a $20 tip.

After moving from Ohio in 2015 to be closer to family, Achmoody looked into becoming an Uber driver. But Uber hadn’t arrived here yet. After it finally got going last winter, he signed up.

When he did, he made sure the company knew about his multiple sclerosis. “I can’t walk very well, but I can drive forever,” he said.

The job has exceeded his expectations. “It’s something to do to earn extra money,” he told me. “It’s fun, and I meet some interesting people.”

Plus, he said, “I like talking.”

With the Uber app, driver and passenger are instantly on a first-name basis. (It helps passengers avoid getting into the wrong car.)

Achmoody likes ferrying visitors to Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center who often have questions about the Upper Valley. It allows him to play tour guide.

When riders ask for restaurant recommendations, he rattles off his favorites, and just as importantly, the ones to avoid.

“They seem to appreciate it,” he said.

Achmoody’s SUV carries seven people — and whatever cargo his extra large vehicle can handle. A DHMC employee once requested an XL Uber, which automatically adds a little to the standard fee. It turned out that the guy was moving away from Lebanon. He paid Achmoody to make two trips to the city’s landfill.

Achmoody also has driven a family of four — and their abundance of luggage — to Boston’s Logan International Airport. The ride cost roughly $300.

Tonight figures to be among Uber’s busiest nights yet, but Achmoody will be off the road before New Year Eve’s revelers start tapping their phone screens. “I don’t work the bars,” he said. “I don’t want people puking in my car.”

That can be a problem. It’s already happened to at least one Upper Valley driver. Uber asked him for a photo (of the mess, not the offending upchucker) before sending $150 to cover the cleanup.

It’s a safe bet that Uber passed the bill along to the pax. (Keeping a customer’s credit card number on file gives the company considerable leverage in these situations.)

Uber also has developed a 1 to 5 star rating system. Riders rate drivers; drivers rate passengers. Both sides know in advance who they might want to avoid.

It makes Uber truly a two-way street.

When I wanted to find out how Uber finally made inroads in the Upper Valley, I was told to talk with Joy Tyo.

She’s a 47-year-old single parent with two daughters in college. She graduated from Mascoma Valley Regional High School in 1988.

Her dad was a cab driver for 42 years in suburban Boston. She became familiar with Uber a while back when her father became seriously ill and she needed to get him into the city for medical appointments. Instead of dealing with the hassles of driving and parking in Boston, Tyo started using Uber.

Her dad’s cab-driving buddies would probably frown upon it, but she became a convert. She then went from pax to driver.

Tyo now splits her time between the Upper Valley and Concord, driving about 35 hours a week. But she does more than drive. She’s taken on the role of a coach.

In the beginning when there were only a few drivers in the Upper Valley, booking a ride was hit or miss. In other words, Uber was less than reliable.

As more drivers signed up, Tyo used weekly breakfast meetings and other gatherings, including a trivia night contest, to encourage a team approach. If done smartly, there’s enough business to go around and meet riders’ needs as well, she said.

“This is not about competition,” she told me. “We’re providing a service and trying to make a connection in the community.”

While each driver works independently, it’s to everyone’s benefit to share work schedules. Having 10 drivers on one night and only two the next isn’t going to win customers. Having every driver hang out in Hanover on cold Saturday nights waiting to shuttle Dartmouth students from dorms to frat parties isn’t profitable, either.

“She helps us a lot,” Achmoody said. “She’s trying to build the business to everyone’s benefit.”

Along with driving and working part time as an administrative assistant for a Lebanon property management company, Tyo serves as an unpaid Uber ambassador, of sorts.

To help Uber drivers earn the respect of the business community, she joined the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce. She reminds business leaders that having a complete transportation network in the Upper Valley requires more than Dartmouth Coach, Amtrak, Greyhound, Cape Air and Advance Transit.

“We’re the gap fillers,” Tyo said.

Case in point: Advance Transit is a terrific free bus service, Tyo said, but it doesn’t run nights or weekends. “That’s where we can help,” she said.

Tyo tells other Uber drivers not to worry about marketing themselves to Dartmouth students. “That age group already gets it,” she said.

To expand their business, Uber drivers must focus elsewhere. She held an Uber informational night at Harvest Hill, a Lebanon retirement community, where she helped about 15 seniors download the company’s app on their smartphones — often gifts from their children that they weren’t using to the fullest.

Tyo was recently leaving Salt hill Pub in Lebanon with friends after midnight when she came upon four women waiting outside. The women had called a taxi an hour earlier, but it had yet to arrive.

Tyo had a feeling that they were about to drive themselves home when none of them were in any shape to get behind a wheel.

Tyo, who was serving as the night’s designated driver for her friends, gave the four strangers her business card and offered them a free Uber ride. They gladly accepted.

After telling her friends to go back inside the pub and wait for her to return, Tyo dropped the women off at their doorsteps in West Lebanon and Hanover.

Tyo is pretty sure Uber gained four new customers that night.

When new drivers sign up, Tyo tells them to expect the unexpected. Like the time a driver was booked in Hanover to deliver a pet rabbit (thankfully, caged) to a birthday party.

When Tyo accepted a ping to take a pax from a downtown Hanover restaurant to DHMC, she didn’t think much about it. More and more, riders are calling Uber drivers to take them to medical appointments.

Tyo wasn’t sure of his nationality, but he didn’t speak a lot of English. As he made his way to her Jeep, she could see he was having trouble walking.

On the short trip to the hospital, he started to complain about severe pain in his leg and side. Could he be having a heart attack?

Tyo hit the gas and headed for DHMC’s emergency room entrance. She helped the man inside, where she gave a front-desk worker a quick rundown to make sure he received immediate attention.

Tyo doesn’t know what happened after that. The trip earned her $3.75.

Tyo uses a good portion of her Uber earnings to help her daughters with college expenses. Textbooks for one daughter came to more than $500 last semester.

I don’t sense many Uber drivers are getting rich. “Most of the time you can make money, but sometimes not,” said Achmoody.

Earlier this year, a national survey of Uber drivers showed they averaged roughly $16 an hour before deducting expenses, The Washington Post reported.

That’s where Uber’s critics come in. If the survey is accurate, Uber drivers, on average, barely make a livable wage. They also don’t receive benefits, such as health insurance.

Nationally, the taxi industry argues that Uber is able to charge lower fares largely because the playing field isn’t level. In Lebanon, for instance, the city requires cab drivers to carry extra insurance that doesn’t apply to Uber drivers who are using their own vehicles.

Along with the liability insurance that Uber provides, drivers must carry their own insurance. Some drivers are also starting to purchase additional insurance — an affordable gap policy, of sorts — to increase coverage, Tyo said.

In February, Robert Revells, the owner of Big Yellow Taxi, told Valley News business writer John Lippman that insurance now runs $17,000 a year for himself and his four drivers.

Last week, I called Revells to talk about the impact that Uber has had on the Upper Valley’s taxi business, which has never seemed that robust to me. I didn’t hear back.

Kristy Field still uses taxis on occasion, but finds herself tapping the Uber app more and more.

“It’s getting a lot more available,” said Field, a waitress in her late 50s who has a driver’s license but no car. “It’s a wonderful service.”

Field became familiar with Uber when visiting her mother in Scottsdale, Ariz. After returning home in March, she learned from a friend that Uber was now here.

Field still relies on Advance Transit to get from her home in Wilder on weekday afternoons to her job at Applebee’s in West Lebanon.

Advance Transit has long stopped running, however, when she finishes her shift around midnight. The ride from West Lebanon to Wilder costs about $10, plus tip.

“It’s a lot cheaper than paying for gas, insurance and upkeep of a car,” she said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.