As a woman, I had never in a million years entertained the idea I would one day drive strangers around the city for money. Safety concerns aside, I already had a career as a writer and freelance video producer, and it had been a long time since I worked in a service industry. In my twenties, I’d supported a previous life as a contemporary dancer with a string of waitressing jobs that left me burnt out and craving solitude.
I had looked into Uber as an alternative to taking traditional taxi-cabs. From what I had heard, the cars were cleaner and the fares cheaper. I hadn’t considered that I would soon be working as a driver. Everyone seemed to be on the Uber bandwagon. Its owners run a relentless marketing campaign for drivers, one that sent me a barrage of emails and texts promoting the advantages of joining the team. For several reasons, including the isolation that often accompanies self-employment and gaps in client payments, I decided to take a closer look.
One mild spring evening earlier this year, I drove out to a hotel in Scarborough, just east of downtown Toronto, for an Uber information session geared towards prospective drivers. It was jam-packed: clearly, I wasn’t the only one whose interest was piqued by the new model. I also noticed I was one of a handful of women attending the presentation. I had expected to see more, but clearly this was still a man’s game.
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My main concern as a female driver was how safe the job could be. My fears were somewhat put to rest with the knowledge that every passenger had to book through a credit card and own a cell phone, and every trip was traceable and geo-located. Basically, if someone whacked me, they were traceable! After each ride, both driver and rider would be encouraged to rate each other through the online app. Being rated weeded out anyone who was abusive on both sides, and you could potentially be blocked for bad behaviour. This sounded fair enough. After supplying my vehicle information, agreeing to a background check and confirming that my car wasn’t more than 10 years old, I was good to go.
There are approximately 2,200 female Uber drivers in Toronto alone, and the company is actively recruiting more. In less than a week, I received notice that I had passed the requirements and was free to hit the road. I tentatively turned the app on, and was surprised to see a request come in immediately.
Not long after, I pulled up to the sports bar in the Beach neighbourhood in the east end of town and waited for my passenger. It was my first day, and this was my third Uber excursion; my heart still raced a little when the Uber app pinged with the invitation of a new rider. A man the app had identified as “Charlie” and another man emerged from the bar and climbed into my car. I was immediately hit with the telltale waft of beer. Charlie, a sturdy guy in his twenties and his friend Ray, a Chris Rock doppelgänger, were flying high and it was only 4 p.m. on a Sunday. Please make this a short ride, I mentally pleaded. Then it hit me: the Raptors had just won a significant game. This changed everything.
As we headed eastbound, Ray, who could barely contain himself, asked me to pull over. “Great, he’s going to puke,” I thought. “My girlfriend works at a restaurant down the street. I have to go kiss her!” he blurted as he tore out the door. Charlie smiled and shook his head. “He’s okay, honest. We’re just a little drunk. The Raptors have never been in the playoffs.” I had visions of Ray’s head sticking out of my sunroof for the remainder of the ride as he whooped and hollered.
Ray returned shortly, his girlfriend having hustled him out of her workplace before her boss caught them. As we continued further east, we moved on to banter about their jobs. Charlie worked in construction and Ray had just embarked on a career in marketing. When he started getting teary over how wonderful his boss was, I felt the full weight of his intoxication.
After a rare moment of silence, Ray said, “I’ve never had a woman Uber driver before,” a phrase with which I would soon become familiar. Then, for good measure, he added: “I think you are very pretty Ma’am.” I smiled and chuckled. It wasn’t remotely flirtatious, more like the way you speak to a mother of a friend. Ray was eager to stay in my good books. After all, he had a rating at stake!
While I’ve rarely felt unsafe on the job, I must confess to one ride where I felt uncomfortable. It was midday, a few weeks after the drive with Ray; I’d received a request from a rider named Brenda. When I pulled up to the pickup spot, however, “Brenda” turned out to be two young white men with pants hanging half way down their legs, oversized baseball caps and a cadence clearly borrowed from the streets of Compton. For the next 15 minutes, we drove with the passengers’ ear-shatteringly loud music playing. I had been told music requests could happen, and that we should typically accommodate them.
I felt as though I had been taken hostage in my own car. The ride ended without incident, but I learned a valuable lesson: go with your instinct. You are not obliged to let someone into the car who does not match the name on the request. I should have simply asked if his name was Brenda and been done with it.
Of all the strangers who have climbed into my backseat, women are the most curious about the experience of being a female driver. They often tell me that they feel at ease when they happen upon a female driver. They share stories of nightmare cab rides where they have felt unsafe. A few have confessed that they have considered becoming an Uber driver themselves, but safety concerns had held them back.
Male passengers approach the subject with caution, as though they will be chastised for making a gender-based assumption. I take no offense to questions like this though, since it is, after all, largely a male-based industry. But the times are changing!
I have been driving Uber for over two months now and barring the one incident, my passengers have been a range of interesting people with diverse stories. For me, Uber offers a viable solution to cash flow crunch and self-employment isolation. I choose my own hours, if I get tired while driving, I simply go offline and head home. Besides, there are worse things than driving with the sunroof open on a beautiful day, having unforeseen conversations with complete strangers.
Vickie Fagan is a writer and television producer living in Toronto. She recently acted as co-producer and writer on the CBCs’s The Curse of Clara.