Why did my Uber driver call before picking me up?

Why do Lyft and Uber drivers call passengers before coming to pick them up?

When your Uber or Lyft driver calls you after accepting your ride, but before leaving to get you, they’re probably making sure that your trip is worth their time.

Drivers don’t see the destination you input when you request a ride. Lyft used to supply this intel to the driver. Uber never did.

When ride-hailing companies give the destination, drivers engage in  “cherry picking,” where drivers don’t accept short rides and only accept longer ones.

Rate cuts lead to shorter rides

Uber drastically cut its rates over the last two years. Lyft blindly followed these cuts by reducing their own fares. Low fares have made extremely short trips affordable–and common. Where a potential rider once might have walked, a $5 ride suddenly looks like an attractive, if slightly lazy, alternative.

Uber drivers call ahead to avoid small fares. Low Uber and Lyft fares result in short trips, as shown in this Uber trip history.Look at the screenshot of a recent day driving. Rides in my small market are short–a lot of ferrying students downtown and back. I got a ride from the airport (usually a longer trip), but, as my luck would have it, the trip resulted in a small payment ($5.99). The smallest fare entailed driving a student across campus, less than a mile walking.

On both platforms, drivers don’t get paid while they travel to pick up a rider. So travel times of 10 minutes, or more, significantly cut into the driver’s income if the passenger is just going a couple of blocks.

The driver might also be staged in a good area, say outside an airport or a busy hotel. Driving to get a short fare would interfere with their chances of getting a longer, more-worthwhile fare.

Phoning ahead becomes new form of cherry picking

In order to avoid long drives to short rides, some drivers call their potential passengers before leaving to get them. This helps drivers maximize their income.

When I was visiting Detroit and staying in a hotel near the airport, my Uber driver called before meeting me. Detroit has some of the lowest rates in the United States. Uber Detroit pays only $0.15/minute (recently raised from $0.09) during the trip ($9.hr), plus only $0.70/mile. Uber paired me with a driver who was 12 minutes away. Shortly after our match, he called me to ask where I was going. I told him that I was traveling back downtown. “I’ll be happy to take you there,” he said, once he knew the destination. 

My driver saw that I was at a hotel near the airport. He worried that I just wanted a short trip to catch my flight. On our ride downtown, he said that he would have requested that I cancel and look for another driver if my ride was too short.

Because there is no fee for canceling within the first 5 minutes of a request, this would not have cost me anything. But it would have been an inconvenience for me because I would have to request another ride. And the fact that the first matched driver was 12 minutes away tells me that there are few drivers close to me.  This could make finding another driver difficult. And you know what I could find–surge pricing.

Uber and Lyft drivers becoming more like taxi drivers

The market dictates this behavior. It makes Uber and Lyft drivers act like traditional taxi drivers, who are infamous for refusing to accept short trips, especially after long queues at the airport. Ironically, by phoning ahead, the ride-hailing industry behaves like the industry that it’s supposed to be disrupting.

At least taxi drivers have a socially accepted practice of tipping, but Uber discourages tipping on its platform. And, while Lyft has tipping built into the platform, small tips on short trips don’t make up for long travel time. (See my article, “9 Reasons To Tip Your Uber Driver.”)

Taxi drivers also famously pad their fares with the “scenic route,” but passengers on Lyft and Uber see the suggested route on their phones.

These types of behaviors helped lead to the regulation of the taxi industry, something that Uber and Lyft have fought. Will these and other behaviors, such as upfront pricing, which removes the per minute/per mile model also lead to customer calls for regulation in the ride-hailing industry?

Let me know what you think.

2 thoughts on “Why did my Uber driver call before picking me up?

  1. As much as I thoroughly dislike short trips ESPECIALLY when I’m picking up in a waning surge zone, I think it’s downright rude to call and cherry pick your rides. As an Uber/Lyft driver you have a choice to work/not to work but the rides are sent out, for the most part, to the closest driver. So, personally I feel, if you don’t want to run the risk of taking a short ride then be a shuttle driver. Or start your own company and set minimum distances. But if you’re going to be an Uber/Lyft driver be happy you’re working at all and stop giving the rest of us a bad rep. Because it is getting to be REALLY difficult now to get pax on the phone (during events/surge times especially) when you need them because they assume you’re just calling to cherry pick and they don’t answer.

    Also maybe realize that you are screwing over your fellow drivers who are most likely further away and who will spend more & therefore make less because you think you are somehow better than the rest of us. (And yes that’s exactly how that comes across.)

    • Hi Michelle,
      Thanks for the reply. You make good points.
      Drivers harm rider trust when they call looking to cherry pick good rides.
      If the driver cancels the ride, then the next driver will have to travel even farther to pick up the lousy fare.
      Short fares are soooo frustrating, though. I can see both sides here.
      Thanks again for adding to the thoughtful comments.

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