How Commuters Can Take Advantage of Driving in a Big City

Harry here.  Commuting into a big city can be an overwhelming endeavor, for new and veteran rideshare drivers. Today, guest contributor Jim Miller shares his experience and advice for drivers to the LA market, but this info is applicable to almost all big cities. Jim commutes into LAX, and the concepts Jim shares apply to rideshare drivers nationwide who in the suburbs, but drive in large cities to stay busier and earn more money.

I’ve been driving for Uber part-time for the last three years, and I’ve learned a lot in this time. The bad news? Uber and Lyft are slow in the suburbs. There are a lot of drivers, but not a lot of passengers. Except for really big events, you won’t make much money. The good news? There’s still money to be made in the city, which is why I drive into LA one or two weeknights and most Saturdays to keep my earnings high. Here are a few tips for someone getting started in a big city, and specifically my advice for the LA area.

Considering commuting into a big city to earn more money? Strategies on how to commute effectively and make it worth the time and effort -

What Are Sign Up Bonuses/Quests/Boosts like in the City?

If you’ve been driving in the suburbs or a smaller city for a while, you may be unfamiliar with quests and boosts. Sign up bonuses can also be a little different in bigger markets vs. smaller markets, but if you’re an existing driver, you won’t be eligible for a sign-up bonus.

However, if you recruit a new driver to drive in LA, the current bonus is $500 after 75 trips. Unfortunately, Uber sometimes offers “guarantees” instead of bonuses. A friend of mine who lives in the Inland Empire signed up to drive with my referral code and I received this email from Uber:

Wow!  $10!  Maybe I’ll pick up the tab at In-N-Out.

Before signing up to drive, make sure you select the closest major city as your driving area. As an Uber driver in California (or any state), you can drive anywhere within that state.

The reason you want to be an LA-based driver (or other large city driver) is so you can be eligible for Los Angeles Boost and Quest promotions. When I was based out of the Inland Empire (suburbs), there were never any promotions. I only got emails and messages in the app about a few local events that pop up in the app.

Boost means that you’ll earn higher fares as if it is surging in any one of five zones in the LA core.  The boost amounts change every few hours based on the projected need.  During busy times, most of the five zones in the LA core will have a boost.  During slow periods, don’t expect any boost. This is a typical busy day boost:

Your passenger still pays the base fare unless it is actually surging when they request a ride.  If the surge price is higher than the boost, you earn the surge price.

Quest is a weekday and weekend bonus that you can earn if you hit the target like this:

As a part time driver, I rarely complete enough rides to earn the Quest bonus.  I only earned the Quest bonus one time when only 20 trips were required. If you are a few trips shy of your bonus, then head to USC or any busy college campus to quickly rack up a bunch of short annoying UberPool rides.

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A Commuter’s Friend: The Destination Filter

The Uber Destination filter has received a lot of attention lately since the number of Destinations was increased from 2 to 6, then back to 2 after less than a month.

Luckily, for part-time drivers, we don’t have to worry. You can have 4 destinations each Uber shift. What? How? You start your shift with 2 destinations. Then, once the clock strikes midnight, you get 2 more destinations. You can beat the 2 destinations restriction if you drive late at night (recommend especially on the weekends).

I get a little nervous picking up passengers after midnight because they might be drunk.  But I have never picked up a drunk at the airport no matter how late it is. Plus, after midnight, you’ll have very light traffic. If you are driving home to the burbs, be sure to save one destination for the ride home or you’ll be deadheading.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Rideshare Driver Lingo

On my way home, I am more likely to accept a Pool ride once I am past the LA core.  The farther away I am from LA, the fewer rides I get.  However, as long as the app is on, you get to write off those miles.

Tips for the Airport (LAX In Particular)

In various Facebook groups for Uber drivers, a lot of drivers talk trash about LAX. The more haters the better; that’s more LAX rides for me.

When the airport is really busy, it can be very chaotic. Even when it’s slow, I rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes for a rider. Most Saturdays, I can go from LAX to downtown at full freeway speeds.

To legally drop off or pick up riders at LAX for Uber and Lyft, you need watch a video and pass a quiz, it’s easy.  You can find the LAX rules here. Not all airports require you to pass a test: to find your airport’s rules, type in “driving at [your airport name] + uber/lyft”.

Note that the airport placard is specific to Uber or Lyft. For LAX, one big rule is that you are not allowed on the lower arrival level ever, not even when the flashing signs approaching the airport encourage drivers to use the lower level.  If a passenger insists that you pick them up on the lower arrival level, it’s probably a police sting, so don’t do it.

I have no idea why the airport has a problem with dual trade dress.  I notice that about 40% of rideshare drivers at the airport have both decals permanently stuck on their cars; it’s a stupid rule, but they are begging to get a ticket:

Per Uber’s website:

There are unique trade dress requirements at LAX and SAN. These two airports prohibit dual trade dress.  This means that if you are on an Uber trip, you may only display the Uber trade dress.  Please make sure you are only displaying an Uber trade dress on your front and rear windshield when you are completing an Uber trip. Having two different trade dresses can result in a fine.

Although I occasionally driver for Lyft, I NEVER turn on the Lyft app at LAX even if Uber is slow because I don’t have an Lyft Airport placard, just Uber. And even if I did have a Lyft airport placard, I am not willing to swap out the trade dress to match the ride.

I have not heard of anyone getting a ticket for attempting to pick up a Lyft rider with Uber trade dress, but LAX is the one place in the world that the tiniest infraction could cost you an encounter with the LAX police.  Speaking of tiny infractions, I got this pop up a few weeks ago:

LAX wants you to use the placard that Uber mails to you.  It’s printed on heavy cardstock paper.  The one you print on your own printer is just temporary.  LAX police were enforcing this in a sweep recently.

In most cases, you can pick up these placards at a nearby Greenlight Hub.

I bought a plastic sleeve which fits both the trade dress and airport placard.  It comes with a suction cup for easy removal.  Mine sags without a few pieces of scotch tape in the middle:

What is Rematch?

A few months ago, Uber and LAX approved “Rematch”:

Since the rematch feature was introduced a few months ago, I have done about 40 airport drop offs. I got a rematch ride about 60% of the time.  If I don’t get a rematch within the 45 second window, I pout, then drive to the rideshare staging lot 1.6 miles away to wait for another LAX ride.

Do You Really Need a Dashcam?

For less than $140, you can buy a quality dashcam.  I have the Falcon 360. Some drivers may feel like they don’t need it, as it can be a big expense for a new, part-time driver. However, as this recent viral video demonstrates, we need to protect ourselves from the LAX Police:

I am a member of the Facebook group where the driver first posted this dashcam video.  He commented that for a few minutes, he forgot he had the dashcam. He could have ended the confrontation right away if he offered to play back the video in the first few seconds of his conversation with the officer.  The driver confirmed that he did not get a ticket thanks to his dashcam.

Dashcam Disclosure Stickers

Every city and state has different rules regarding filming, so you’ll want to do some research (or ask in local Facebook groups), but in California, you may need to disclose you are recording video and audio. To cover myself, I have these stickers on all four windows of my car.

Don’t Pick and Choose Your Airport Rides

One benefit to driving the airport routes is the great opportunity to get long rides.  Unfortunately, some of our fellow Uber drivers pick and choose rides. They will call or text their passenger to find out where the passenger is going. If it’s a short ride or a place they don’t want to drive to, they will cancel the ride.

I picked up a rider recently that told me I was their third driver that did not cancel on them (and he was going to Santa Monica, about 10 miles, a good place to end up).  Pick and choosers defend the practice in Uber driver groups on Facebook by saying they are independent contractors. But when an Uber customer or two complains about your cherry picking, you’ll be an unemployed independent contractor.  Cancelling on an airport passenger is number 10 on Harry’s top 11 ways to get deactivated.

This was a notice a driver from and Uber Facebook received after a passenger reported to Uber that the driver asked the passenger for their destination:

Metro Express Lane FasTrak Transponder

Many riders are headed to Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). The ride from LAX into downtown is my bread and butter. The fastest route is the 105 east to the 110 north.  The 110 is often jammed up.  But you can bypass the crowd by getting a Metro express lane FasTrak transponder.

Here’s a great article which describes all the FasTrak details including where you can buy a transponder.

I bought my FasTrak transponder from the Auto Club (AAA) for $32.  The transponder comes pre-loaded with $40 of toll credits.  The monthly maintenance fee is only $1.

But here is the best part:  When you have a passenger on the 110, there is no toll charge for your or your passenger.  Many of my LAX riders that live in DTLA have mentioned that most UberX drivers to not have the FasTrak transponder.  I have received a lot of tips from customers because I always mention that there is no extra toll charge, and I shave several minutes off the ride.

The transponder allows express lane on any FasTrak lanes in California.  For about a month, I tried out driving in Orange County which has many toll roads.  You will be charged a flat fee for access to toll roads in Orange County.  Your passenger is charged for the toll and you are reimbursed:

Therefore, unless you choose to drive on a toll road as a solo driver, you get all the benefits of the express lanes without spending your own toll money except for the $1 monthly fee which is by far offset by the extra tips you earn.

Be Careful of Airport Stings

If you watched the video above, you’ll notice security has no problem writing tickets even if you’ve been waiting for less than a minute to pick up a passenger. This regularly happens in big cities, at airports but also near bus stops and other “no waiting/no parking” areas, so be careful and pay attention to signs when you’re stopping to pick up a passenger.

Most LA rideshare drivers know all about this. If you are ever approached by some desperate damsel in distress with a dead cell phone offering cash for ride, do not fall for it. If you agree to give someone a ride for cash without using the Uber or Lyft app, you could end up in handcuffs. Just say: “No thanks officer, I know all about your sting” then wave at all the cop cars that are waiting nearby to swoop in to arrest you. Not today!

Big City Places to Avoid

Many places around LA will surge after big events, but it’s usually not worth the hassle including:

  • Dodger Stadium – Very time consuming to get in and out and very poor cell phone reception.
  • The Rose Bowl in Pasadena – Your only escape is a few crowded narrow residential streets, you’ll be stuck in that mess for a long time.
  • The Hollywood Bowl –The line of cars heading north on Highland moves an inch an hour once the concert is over.  If you have already accepted the ride request, ask your rider to walk down Highland Ave to Franklin.

This won’t be the case in every big city, so this is why it pays to know your market. In some big cities, staging yourself near sporting events that are about to end is a great idea because there are a lot of ways to exit downtown, for instance.

In general, it only pays to “chase” this surge if you can position yourself in a good pick up spot before the game/event lets out.

Related: Rydar, the Swiss Army Knife of Driver Tools

Be Careful with Child Car Seats

Every state has different rules for children in car seats, and California recently updated child car seat laws.

I would need more than one hand to count the number of times I have arrived to pick up a rider with a baby or toddler and no car seat. Not only is this very unsafe, if you caved and gave the ride, you, the driver would liable for an expensive ticket and a point on your driving record. So don’t do it! Booster seats are required for kids that have outgrown a car seat. Become familiar with state laws and avoid trouble.

Coachella and Stagecoach

Every April, you have a great opportunity to make money… stay in LA while newbies chase the surge at Coachella and Stagecoach. I wrote about this previously here.

Even though Coachella now attracts 125,000 people, there is such a huge over saturation of drivers, there is almost no surge pricing.  All that hassle for no extra cash.  The golden goose is dead.  I will never waste my time out there again.  Stay in LA during Coachella and Stagecoach.

Takeaways for Commuting Drivers in Big Cities

Overall, there are excellent reasons why so many drivers commute from the suburbs into bigger cities. Sure, the drive is longer and uses more gas, but the potential to earn more through quests and boosts is much greater in the city than it is the ‘burbs. This is why it’s crucial to use the destination filter, both to get into the city and to get back home (or where ever home is) at the end of the day.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of airports, LAX in particular. You get to meet different types of people, people who are usually friendly and sober. Airports definitely have their own set of specific rules, though, and it’s important to have the right trade dress, know where to position yourself, and protect yourself with a dashcam. All drivers should have a dashcam, but particularly frequent airport drivers.

When you drive in a big city, it really pays to be informed. For instance, in LA, it doesn’t make sense to drive to certain big events, like Dodgers games or Coachella. If you were a new driver, you wouldn’t immediately know this and might waste your time. Get involved in local Facebook groups or other driver forums, and always make sure to position yourself early before an event lets out, so you’re in the best spot to pick up a passenger quickly and get on your way.

Have any questions about commuting into a big city? Leave a comment in the comment section below!

Bio: Jim Miller is a full-time customer service rep for a large utility in Southern California for 28 years.  He’s a big fan of San Diego State Football and Basketball (class of 1987) and long- suffering fan of Angels Baseball.  Jim has been married to his best friend Joanne for 29 years and is the proud father of two talented and successful daughters.  He drives from the suburbs of Rancho Cucamonga 50 miles to Los Angeles and back most weekends to earn a few extra dollars.

-Harry @ RSG