Long commutes and critical peers won't stop Charleston's out-of-town Uber drivers 

Money Moves

click to enlarge Rebecca Stauter, 52, drove four hours from Myrtle Beach and back every day for three months to take advantage of the robust rider market in Charleston

Pamela Oliveras

Rebecca Stauter, 52, drove four hours from Myrtle Beach and back every day for three months to take advantage of the robust rider market in Charleston

Rebecca Stauter felt stuck in the drab, stuffy offices of a medical device company in Myrtle Beach when a friend told her what he was earning for picking up passengers by the beach.

"So I gave it a try," she said. "The money was really good. I was making about $250 a day, including tips."

Stauter, 52, started out driving from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. in July 2017. She took advantage of the flexibility and creativity that came with making her own hours and practices, such as freezing water bottles and keeping them in an ice cold cooler, which earned her extra tips as beachgoers hopped in her car and reached for them on their way to nearby bars, restaurants, and hotels.

But the ride-hailing race fueled by wandering tourists came to a screeching halt after Labor Day.

"That Tuesday, it was dead," she said. "One week I think I made $40, another week $80. I'd be waiting at the airport for two, three, four hours just for one ride. The planes coming in were just empty, so that's when I decided to make the drive to Charleston."

The Charleston-North Charleston metro area boasts 383,000 more people than the Myrtle Beach-Conway-Georgetown region, according to 2010 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

So for three months, Stauter hit the road by 9:30 a.m. for the 97-mile, two-hour long commute. After circling the city, toggling between her driver profiles on Uber and Lyft (many drivers use both), she called it quits by 8 p.m. so she could decide whether she had enough energy to drive back to Myrtle Beach. When she didn't, she'd stay with friends in Summerville or on Daniel Island.

"The drive was brutal," Stauter admits. "I was always terrified of a deer jumping out."

Even after loading her tank with $30 of gas a day, and factoring in a daily $10 salad from East Bay Deli and monthly oil changes, Stauter was still taking home close to $700 a week.

"It was worth it," Stauter says.

She now lives on James Island, a decision she partly attributes to the robust rider market.

Until recently, Stauter was just one in a daily wave of part-time and full-time contractors crashing into the Holy City for their share of the asphalt pie. So many, in fact, that it's become a sore point with area drivers.

"I think that that's not fair for the people who live and work here — that you have folks who come from out-of-town to steal business," says Tyler Hueter, general manager of Charleston Green Taxi. "When you have drivers from out-of-town here just to capitalize on the tourist market, that not only hurts local businesses but it hurts local Uber and Lyft drivers."

The transportation turf war has gone global as ride-hailing companies upend the system in cities with more established, traditional vehicles-for-hire. In New York, a single building in Long Island City houses offices for Uber, Lyft, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission as all three compete to lure in drivers with different services and amenities. In London, the battle between iconic black cabs and disrupting Ubers has taken on a larger significance, as some Muslim Uber drivers have complained of harassment by the mostly white cabbies.

Stevan King, 27, was already Ubering in Greenville for an average of $100 a week when he discovered the bounties of Charleston's streets.

"[My friend] had to work and I was bored sitting in her apartment, so I went out and thought it would give me a chance to see the city and learn about it," he said.

He soon started making the three-hour trip down to Charleston every other Thursday, staying with his friend and working through Sunday, when he drives another three hours back to Greenville. He says he can earn up to $700 in those few days in Charleston. The money is so good that he recently accepted a job offer here, hoping to parlay his short-term success into steady income.

King attributes animosity toward Uber drivers to insecurity.

"Some of these independent cab companies — we get a lot of crap as Uber drivers from them just because they think we're taking their business," he said. "But it's kind of like, if you see another business come in and do what you do, but 10 times better, why don't you raise your game?"

In Charleston, tensions aren't limited to ride-hailing outsiders.

Sara Alfonso, 30, administers a Facebook group for Charleston Uber and Lyft drivers. She polled its members and asked if drivers from places such as Columbia or Beaufort should be allowed to stay. The answer was a resounding no. The group's membership has since whittled down from about 1,000 to 466.

"It was a majority thing. I personally don't mind people from other cities coming to this city and driving," said Alfonso, who herself is from Goose Creek. "I say go where it works for you, but a lot of people are worried about the money they're making and the drivers coming [from] out-of-town."

The anti-ridesharing ordinance making you walk an extra block on King Street

On Nov. 22, 2016, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg signed the latest update to an ordinance making it illegal to "park, stop, or stand" a limo, taxi or "TNC endorsed vehicle" (transportation network company, i.e. Uber, Lyft) on designated no-pickup zones between the hours of 12:30 a.m. and 3 a.m on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This makes it especially hard for Ubers to pick up passengers on King and Market streets. Taxis are allowed to pick up passengers on designated cab stands, which are off limits to Uber and Lyft drivers. Uber warns drivers about the ordinance on its website, and according to a spokesperson, they directly warn nearby drivers about the rules with an in-app message. Most drivers, however, say the rules don't affect them much. They just tell passengers to meet them on side streets. "I think the city probably created that because a lot of drivers don't have common sense and will stop in the middle of the road, and that's illegal anywhere. You can't impede traffic," says Uber driver Sara Alfonso. "But a lot of passengers don't know that it's a law," she adds, "and a lot of riders will cancel the ride because they don't wanna walk a couple feet to where you are." Under the ordinance, 97 violations were recorded in 2016 and 103 in 2017, according to the city. Of those 200 tickets, only 102 have been paid and $39,631 have been collected in fines, making for an average ticket of $389.

Uber points to a 2015 state law signed by former Gov. Nikki Haley that legalized "Transportation Network Companies" throughout the Palmetto State, with no restrictions on where people can drive so long as they meet standard requirements for licenses and inspections. Alabama's governor signed a similar law on March 1.

"Most people choose to drive with Uber because it offers them a flexible schedule: driver-partners choose when they drive, where they drive, and for how long," said Uber spokesperson Evangeline George in an e-mailed statement. "South Carolina's statewide framework for ridesharing gives both riders and drivers clarity, with access to safe rides and flexible earning opportunities throughout the state."

In "The Value of Flexible Work: Evidence from Uber Drivers," UCLA professors Keith Chen and Peter Rossi and Yale professor Judith Chevalier conclude that such flexibility is a key motivating factor for drivers of ridesharing companies.

"Not only can drivers choose to supply a relatively small number of hours per week but they can allocate these hours flexibly over the days and hours of the week," the paper reads. "Another important source of flexibility is the ability of an Uber driver to adapt on an hour-by-hour basis to changes in demands on his/her time."

Stauter, the driver originally from Myrtle Beach, argues that an outsize focus on people's personal and economic decisions is antithetical to the tenets of the sharing economy.

"There are territorial drivers and I get their viewpoint," she says. "I'm not one of them, and to me, everyone needs to make money and work."

For some, it's not just about the money. Uber and Lyft are not required to train their drivers on city layouts, an allowance that some say poses a problem when out-of-town drivers trickle in to shuttle hordes of tourists who are likely lost themselves.

"Our drivers go through a two-day initial training process, and then we have ongoing training with our drivers throughout the year," said Hueter of Green Taxi. "I've met most of my drivers' wives and kids, so it's a very different relationship than you have with an Uber or Lyft, where they don't have a boss or anyone they really have to check in with. Once they sign up on the app they get an email with some pointers and that's about it."

Uber drivers from all over South Carolina are likely to keep passing through, reaping the benefits of a growing city and a beloved phone app.

For Kevin Johnson, a 56-year-old actor from Columbia who has appeared in The Inspectors and Mr. Mercedes (and likes to party), getting to drive in Charleston satisfies two universal interests: meeting new people and making more money.

"No, not really," Johnson said when asked about animosity between drivers. "They don't really notice the out-of-towners or who's a local. It's hard to differentiate because we're all just driving."


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