I was waiting for my next job in Civic, Canberra's city centre this morning. The World Hockey Masters championships are in town at the National Hockey Centre, and I watched the England team, looking very smart in fresh red and white uniforms, climb into their hired bus. The Australian team walked across to the council bus stop, somewhat less dapper in faded green and gold. And four New Zealand fans were waiting for me outside Macdonalds.
Boy, did I get a surprise when I hit the “Start ride” button and discovered the destination! Wellington’s National Hockey Stadium, and the Uber app had helpfully provided me with a map.
I think the chap booking the ride must have had Autocorrect pick up one of his regular destinations, but it was mission impossible for me.
Nevertheless, I saw what it said, but I knew what it meant, and delivered them to the hockey centre a couple of kilometres away.
Good luck, New Zealand! You’ve got four charming and enthusiastic fans cheering you on!
UberX has been running in Canberra for just over a month now. Legal from Day One.
As part of the deal Uber cut with the local government, cars had to be inspected for safety, and drivers had to pass police and driving tests. I had to submit my documents several times over during the certification process, but all went well and I was driving from the first minutes.
The inspection process was interesting. Only a few days until launch and my car had to be roadworthy. Uber advised an address where the inspection would be carried out, and I treated it as a dress rehearsal. Ran the car through the wash, vacuumed out the carpets, cleaned the interior, got a polishing cloth onto the inside of the door frames. I wanted it to look its best for the inspectors.
The inspection station turned out to be a bare unit in a light industrial area. The sort of suburb where car yards, furniture repairers, brothels and the like rent premises. A mechanic in frayed overalls was examining the innards of a nice-looking Ford Falcon on a concrete floor. A trestle table held a notebook and a coffee mug. That was it. Outside, a "U" made out of black electrical tape stuck on the wall in the shape of the Uber logo was stuck to the hinted that this was the right place.
Uber's public face in Canberra. I was not hugely impressed.
The mechanic got me to start the engine, pop the bonnet, turn on various lights, sound the horn and so on. When he asked me to turn on the wipers, they wouldn't budge, even though they had worked fine in the light drizzle a few hours earlier.
He was going to fail me on this, and I leafed through the owner's manual in frustration, trying to find the problem. We checked the fuse box, all correct, tried various settings of the wiper controls, no luck.
Eventually I found a note that the wipers wouldn't operate if the bonnet was open. Volkswagen having a joke, I figured. We lowered the bonnet, twisted the stalk, the wipers whipped back and forth and the last box was ticked.
A few days later, I was on the road, filling the car up with petrol, stocking it with Minties and spring water, buying new electronics, spending big to make a few bucks.
Yesterday I got a call from Uber. New government regulations, and if I could bring the car in, they'd inspect it again and issue a certificate for me to show any passenger who asked. Right. Passengers were very keen on inspecting my documents, I had noticed, especially late at night with a few drinks aboard, or when in a hurry to catch a plane.
But, what the hey! Governments love red tape and if I had to have the car inspected again, so be it. Uber was paying, after all.
This time around, what a difference! The empty space was beginning to fill up with expensive kit. A vehicle hoist, electronics, visitor chairs, professional signage. Two mechanics now ran the show - both in fresh uniforms.
They were churning the cars through. Four drivers turned up while I was there. The test only took a few minutes, but it was thorough, involving a lift up on the hoist, a test drive, a good look at all the important bits - left rear tyre nearing end of life, they told me - and more electronical trsting gadgets than you could poke a stick at.
One of the mechanics leaned in to check the registration and lifted a Mintie from the supply in the console. "Had to fail a few for no mints and no water," he joked. I just smiled. Minties are cheap.
With polished ease, the forms were filled out, a copy handed to me, and I was back on the road, all legal and tested, making my ten bucks an hour.
As I waited for the next ping, it occurred to me that I wasn't making much, but some were raking it in. Just like the old gold rush days, I thought. The miners mostly came out poorer than they went in, but the folks who sold the shovels to them, they made fortunes.
These mechanics running the tests were cleaning up big time. Hundreds of cars in the Canberra Uber fleet, each one inspected twice over. That's got to be worth a few dollars. Repeat annually and retire early.
That's the inspection process in Canberra. I wonder what happens in other cities?
We get into a routine. Our comfort zone. We pull it up around ourselves, tuck ourselves in. It's a comfortable coccoon, where we listen to our favourite music, munch on the same food and drink the same beverage we had yesterday, meet the same people, see the same places.
This is what I like, we tell ourselves, this is perfect. This is home.
Uber can change all that. Suddenly, we're out and about, all over the city, driving down new streets in search of new people, forced to share our lives with them and their unfamiliar preferences.
It's part of the job; might as well make the most of it.
I carry a little mirrorless camera with me. It fits into the door pocket and I can whip it out when I see something. A rainbow, a sunset, fog on the lake, a pack of lady cyclists whizzing past - all lycra and loveliness.
My Uber work gets me to fresh places, I see things from new angles. In normal life, I wouldn't be down by the lake at dawn, but when I work the early shift, why, it's just a few metres off the freeway and I'm in a little waterside park.
It was still, moody, dramatic. Not usually the sort of thing I find at day's beginning, tucked up and drowsy. A moment of peace before I get back on the road.
I took a series of shots, looking for the best framing, the best exposure, but the phone in my hand buzzed, and within moments I was back in the car, whizzing over that bridge in the background, off to pick up another passenger.
I gave him my usual spiel: cold water in the door pocket, Minties in the centre console, charging cables, pick your own music…
"Oh yeah, that Spotify thing," he said. "Mind if I try it?"
"Not at all. I get tired of hearing the same songs time after time. Always good to try something new."
He fiddled with his phone and music came out of my speakers. Amy Winehouse, not generally my cup of tea, but not bad at all.
He chuckled. "I had an Uber driver last night, let me play my music. I picked a good song, but nothing happened. Couldn't work it out. Then I noticed that the driver had his earphones plugged into his phone. He was rocking and bopping along, and I was getting nothing.
"I looked at him, and made a remark about how it would be good to have some music. He got the hint, and put on the radio for me!"
I told him how I was always glad to hear new music. No matter how much I love a song, after hearing the same playlist hundreds of times, the sparkle fades.
"Here's one I never get tired of," he said.
Amy stopped and a new tune came on. Soft and sparse at first, but picking up. Mellow, rich, deep.
"A band called 'Radical Faces'," he said. "I've listened to it hundreds of times, love it."
I was charmed. Here was this man, a stranger in my life, sharing his best tune with me.
So, dear readers, I'm passing it on. Paying it forward. May your day have something different, something fresh, something good. Welcome home.
In my old job as a night cabbie, I worked from three in the afternoon until four in the morning. Or I could if I wanted. There was usually work around in the predawn hours, and only a few cabs on the road. It could be a golden time, whipping along empty roads, sharing conversations with cooks coming home, bakers going to work, musicians winding down from a gig.
But fatigue usually intervened. There's only so much one person can do without overdosing on Red Bull, and I was strictly a coffee man.
Late at night I'd play Norah Jones. Her mellow, honeyed voice, crooning into my ear, filled me up with sweet romance. Those moments were precious as I cruised the sleeping city.
"But I can't play her after midnight," I'd tell my passengers. "She's pure valium."
I had a six-stacker CD in the limo, and an iPhone full of tunes, curated into playlists depending on the passengers. Mozart for the afternoons, jazz for the evenings, bouncy songs for the kids, ABBA for ladies of a certain age, and Michael Jackson for the teenagers. Sometimes, I swear, they were moonwalking in the back seat!
My little silver Golf has none of that. I've got one CD, the playlists are lost one computer and two phones back, and it's going to take a while to build up a good music library.
But I have Siri and Apple Music. And a generous data plan.
One of the crucial factors in passenger comfort, I find, is letting them be the captain of the sound system. They can choose the radio station, plug in the AUX cord, even use the Spotify music feature. They aren't stuck with my choice of music – one young lady made retching sounds in the back seat when she heard my Frank Sinatra selections – and I think if the driver is playing talkback radio, he's on track for a one star rating.
Siri has access to a huge selection of music, and so long as she can cope with my Australian accent, she's pretty good at finding what I want. "Hey, Siri, play that song from Juno!" and sure enough, "All I Want is You" comes up. "Play some music from 1972," I'll tell her, and all the songs of my teenage years come flooding back.
Get a passenger experimenting with Siri and their favourite tunes, and hilarity ensues.
However, trying to control this with my iPhone, mounted on the dashboard, can be a bit of a pain. For one thing, whenever I press a button on the Uber Partner app, say to accept a ride or to start it, the music stops, and fumbling with the screen while I'm driving off to get it going again is a fiddly and distracting process.
Enter the Apple Watch. This is my indulgence, bought after my first week's pay sloshed into my bank account. It links to the iPhone, has an ingenious design, and best of all, I can talk with Siri by just holding it up close.
I can start and stop the music with a swipe and a tap on the watch touchscreen, keeping my hand on the wheel. Another swipe and I have instant access to my own music and playlists.
Google and Android have similar systems, I'm told. But I'm an Apple guy, and I'm happy experimenting (well, playing, if I'm honest) with my Apple stuff. Being able to rise above the limitations of one CD and a handful of local radio stations opens up a whole new world for me. And my passengers.
I'll figure out all the details. Looks like a powerful and flexible system. I wonder if I can tell Siri not to play Norah Jones after midnight?
I wasn't warming to Alex, the staffer in charge of the Canberra UberX launch. He was a bit too full of the company line for my liking, and I hadn't yet made up my mind to drive for Uber, anyway.
He was addressing a room full of hundreds of potential drivers. About 90% of them taxi drivers or foreign students, by my judgement.
"It doesn't hurt to offer a bottle of cold water to your rider," Alex was saying. "You go to the supermarket, get a slab of bottles for like, five bucks, offer them to your riders, and about one in ten will accept. That's like, two cents a rider."
Suspicion raised its pointy nose in my mind and began sniffing. Was water really that cheap? Did those numbers stack up? Wasn't this just Uber wanting drivers to dig into their own pockets?
Occasionally I buy a bottle of water, and it's more like two dollars than two cents. If every passenger took one – and who wouldn't take a freebie? – then that was coming straight out of my bottom line, along with fuel, tax, maintenance, and all the other little things.
But hey, I was going to give this thing a shot, see how I liked it, plug each day's numbers into a spreadsheet, keep track of everything and have some solid data to make a decision.
Alex also mentioned offering mints to riders. Well, fair enough. I'd always offered individually-wrapped, chewy, sweet Minties to passengers in my previous career as a limo driver, and they were well appreciated, didn't cost a mint, and if they had a downside, it was that I ate them when I got hungry, and each one added a little bit to the waistline.
At the supermarket, I inspected the offerings. Evian, Perrier, San Pellegrino. They all cost a bomb and promised a short cut to bankruptcy.
At the lower end of the scale, "Home Brand" was seven dollars for a pack of twenty-four. But their plain labels looked cheap. One notch up was a brand with a picture of snowy mountains and bubbling streams: ten bucks for twenty. I hoisted the pack into my shopping trolley, along with a bag of Minties and a few containers of Tic-Tacs.
When I began driving, I mentioned to my passengers that there was a bottle of cold water in the door pocket. As the hours passed, I said "cold-ish", and after four hours, it was just "spring water".
The rest of the slab was still in the plastic wrapping, loose in the boot, and each time I rounded a corner a little too vigorously, there'd be a rumbling from behind and a raised eyebrow from my passenger. "Ah, that's the ex-girlfriend," I'd explain.
Not everyone took a bottle. In fact, only a few did. Two tourists waiting in the hot sun grabbed a bottle each. A passenger heading to the airport took one with him. In Australia, you can take water through security. We live in the danger zone here.
Seventy trips later, I've still got twelve bottles left. That's less than one passenger in ten taking a bottle. About five cents a ride, all told. I'm not going to go bust in a hurry at this rate.
I found a little cooler bag. Holds eight bottles and a thin freezable container. Keeps my spare bottles of water cold for an entire shift and reduces the noises from the back. Looks tidy as well.
No takers on the Tic-Tacs, but I've had one or two passengers take Minties. I haven't been keeping a rigorous count, but I suspect family members have been dipping into the stock, which I keep in a glass coffee container in the front beverage holder.
I offered them to one gent, and he said, "Funny you should mention Minties. Haven't had any for twenty years, and then the missus bought a bag the other day. 'Careful', I told her, 'you'll lose a filling!' But she didn't listen."
"Ouch!" I said. "She lost a filling?"
"Nope. she lost a whole crown. Eight thousand dollars worth of dental work."
He didn't take a Mintie.
I'm sold on the water and mints. As Alex promised, it's a few cents a ride. It shows my riders that I care for their comfort, especially on a warm day. And most of all, it separates Uber from the local taxi company. It's the little things that matter. Water, mints, the AUX cord, a phone recharger cable. Add in the lower fare, and what passenger is going to choose a cab? It's a no-brainer.
I figure that anything that grows the business is good for me. More passengers, more rides, more money.
But, most of all, what I like is being kind to other people. I always aim for a smile at the end of the trip, and it's the smiles that keep me driving. Happy passengers = happy driver!
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