Living in a city with a “Big 10” school gets nuts around game time. College football is in Columbus, Ohio’s blood; as the city can nearly double in population on game days when there’s no pandemic locking the population down. In my previous life as a rideshare driver, I used to absolutely clean up on game days. And one day, I paid my rent with one ride.
Listen, I’m one of the first people to be critical of the ridesharing industry. I don’t think either Uber or Lyft is great with workers rights, and there are a lot of poor folks with few options trapped in a cycle of “maybe this time I’ll make it,” driving their cars into the ground, and technically paying to work during the process. During big events, though? All that goes out the window. Festivals, sporting events, LGBTQ pride, anything with a mass amount of people who can’t or shouldn’t drive can be a huge payday for drivers. Everyone needs a ride, and that’s where that sweet, sweet surge pricing comes into play.
My weekends driving for OSU home games were so lucrative that they’d completely float my living expenses for nearly half the year. Football season ends around late November. My football season earnings would let me swing all the way to at least early to mid-March, when people would start to brave the weather and come out and be social.
In 2019, I found myself driving for the Ohio State homecoming game. Ohio State was going against Michigan State (not University of Michigan, our archrival). The homecoming parade had gone smoothly, and people were stoked for the homecoming game, an evening game this time. I had been busy all day. I’d say that most of the crowds for OSU games don’t really come from the students, but the alumni and visiting parents. After the first game of the season, (and the OSU vs Michigan game), the homecoming game has the most alumni visiting campus. Everywhere you look, there’s some fanny-pack’d couple standing on the corner, lost, because their old dive bar is now a Target/Starbucks combination.
That day was busy, as game day patrons mixed with ordinary 20-somethings headed to the bars and clubs on a Saturday night. Surge pricing was modest all day, most rides were at least 1.4 times the normal amount, maybe touching 2 or 2.5 times later. My day was going great, I had made more than enough to my bills for the next couple of weeks. Little did I know, my day was about to get greater.
At about 10:45 p.m., the ride requests exploded. The game had finished, Ohio State had won! Also, good lord, a hecka-ton of cars were trying to leave at once, so traffic had come to a full standstill near the stadium. In my gameday rideshare strategy, I would try and stay somewhat close to the stadium, but on side streets where I’m less likely to get trapped in the hordes of escaping alumni whose nostalgia had worn off when the game clock read zero.
After taking a few short rides, as surge pricing soared over five times the normal price, I got one more ride request. The app warned me that it was a “long ride” — both Lyft and Uber warn the driver if the ride will be longer than 45 minutes. I rolled to the ride request and waited. Long ride request? During this surge? This late at night? I figured that the passenger probably accidentally put in the wrong address. Still, I showed up and waited. Four out of the five-minute waiting period had passed. No sign of the passenger, and no answer when I called to find where they were. Oh well, I guess. Right as my finger was about to press the “cancel ride” button, a man opened the door and plopped his elderly father in the back.
“Hey, can you make sure my dad gets home OK,” said the guy. They explained that the phone had died, so they couldn’t answer my call. They parked their F-150 at a parking meter, not realizing that nearly all pay meters are completely no-parking during game days.
Seemed fine. The name they provided matched the ride request.
Then I looked at the destination. They wanted me to drive them to Cincinnati, at least 100 miles away, during the middle of a surge. Old people don’t always understand how the technology works — I had recently heard a story of a woman who paid $1,000 for an airport ride, claiming not to understand what Surge Pricing is. It was a huge fiasco for Uber, and the last I wanted was to be slammed in my local news and look like a scam artist because I didn’t do the right thing.
I explained to the passenger what it was surging, and I told him “I do not know how much this ride will charge you, but I know it will be very expensive, probably a couple of hundred dollars. Are you sure you want me to drive you this far?” I tried to explain in as basic terms as possible.
“Yeah, I’m ready to go home, man,” he said. He didn’t seem drunk or confused about how Uber worked. With that, I set off.
The ride took almost two hours. After escaping stadium traffic, the trip was uneventful. My passenger was quiet, didn’t say too much. He even gave me directions on how to get to his house easier, since I wasn’t too familiar with Cincinnati.
“You took good care of me, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of,” the passenger said, as I pulled in to drop him off.
Back in 2019, I wasn’t able to see how much I was going to make from a ride, until after I finished the ride. I wasn’t sure what I was going to make from the ride to Cincinnati. $150? $200? $275?
Nope, it was nearly $500. In one day, I’d made enough to cover my share of rent for the month. After fees, the ride total had come to $398, but then my generous passenger tipped me $100.
Before fees, I could see that the passenger had paid $809 for his ride from Columbus to Cincinnati.
He didn’t fuss or complain. There was never any complaint filed against me or Uber, as far as I am aware. I don’t understand why anyone would pay $800 for a ride in the back of a Chevrolet Sonic, but whatever, it was a great day for that little car.