Mask Up, Your Ride is Here
Transportation has not been the same in Boston since the start of the pandemic. The MBTA commuter rail and subway still run less than half full at rush hour. Empty buses roll on city streets while airplanes carry fewer passengers to and from Logan than in the past.
One area that has been hard hit particularly hard by the pandemic is the ride-share industry. Over the past several months, the Review interviewed Uber drivers in Boston, both in English and Spanish, to learn more about the impact of the coronavirus on their work and life. The Review has previously spoken with Boston area Uber drivers to uncover more about the immigrant experience in the city. Among other sentiments, drivers unanimously agree that a slowdown in business has impacted their ability to get by. Some expressed extreme caution about the virus, while others mocked the fear and panic enveloping the nation. The drivers we met almost all agreed, to varying extents, that Uber has put policies in place policies that effectively protect drivers as well as passengers.
The ride-sharing industry has grown in popularity in recent years despite the presence of an extensive public transportation system in the Greater Boston area. According to a report released by the state, companies in the business of picking up and dropping off people provided 91.1 million rides in 2019, a 12% increase from the year prior. Since March, meanwhile, MBTA subway ridership has decreased by 80% while MBTA bus ridership has decreased by 60%.
Recent ride-sharing statistics are not available for Boston, but during the pandemic, Uber has reported a decrease of ridership by a whopping 75% nationwide. The impact of public precaution and lockdowns have taken a tangible hit on all forms of transportation in Greater Boston, with more people opting to stay inside the safety of their own homes.
“This is the least money I’ve made in my six years of driving,” one driver, Maher, told the Review. “I’m taking home 40% of my usual pay.”
Uber drivers make their salary through commissions for rides and tips from customers, and the average hourly wage comes out to a modest $9.21. With less overall riders and overly burdened customers less inclined to tip, drivers are struggling to get by.
“It’s getting harder to put food on the table, but I need this job,” said one driver named Helder.
A full year into the pandemic, most drivers expressed some kind of fear about the virus and concerns for their own personal safety. Several related stories of riders who refused to comply with Uber’s mandatory mask policy.
“I know what risks I’m taking, and I’m trying to be safe,” Helder added. “You do what you have to do in life.”
Still, some drivers showed skepticism about the dangers to their health.
“People are too afraid of the virus here,” Maher said. “My family and friends back in Brazil haven’t changed the way they live, and they’re all doing fine.”
“This virus is all just for the politicians and media to make money. They don’t actually care,” Khondaker argued.
Despite these differences in their perceptions of the virus, there seems to be some common appreciation of Uber’s safety policies. Uber has implemented safety measures, including mandatory mask wearing, reduced passenger capacity, and increased support and feedback, to protect both drivers and passengers.
“Uber has done a great job to keep workers and riders safe because they follow the science; that’s what’s important,” a driver named Ricot told the Review.
“Uber has kept up with communication really well and updated its policies when it needs to. I feel safer working here than if I was a taxi driver,” Rafael said.
When asked to reflect upon the lessons they’ve learned in recent months, drivers shared their takeaways that keep them prepared to get back on the road day after day, night after night, to keep the wheels of the city spinning.
“You have to be grateful for everything,” Rafael said. “Our world can change so quickly. Don’t take anything for granted anymore.”
“Just be ready for the unexpected,” Arjan said. “Make every moment count; who knows how long they’ll last.”