Revisiting the SF Bay Area Uber and Lyft Drivers Who Lived in Their Cars

The idea of “vehicle residency” has grown in popularity since 2015 amid rising cost-of-living expenses and inflation rates. Because owning or renting a home in 2023 still isn’t a human right.

The story was a part of the SF Homeless Project, a media collaboration, coordinated by the San Francisco Chronicle circa 2019, to draw attention to solutions to end the crisis; it has since been pulled from its original publisher and republished on Underscore_SF with updated information and edits; all interviews included in the piece remain original and without edits.

Outside a 24 Hour Fitness in San Mateo, side-saddling a commercial office space and a tiered parking structure, a swath of strategically tinted cars sit parked, veiled by thin layers of condensation coating their windshields. It’s obvious that people have spent the night inside them, presumably cocooned somewhere either in the back seat or the spacious hatch. Many attempt privacy measures — some using towels or sheets or other fabrics stuffed under the windows to block out wandering eyes.

Most display a shared vocational decal: Lyft or Uber.

While most don’t associate hailing a rideshare with the notion of stepping foot inside someone’s home, that’s exactly what some passengers were doing around this same time four years ago.

The number of people living in their cars overall in the Bay Area has dramatically increased since 2015. A survey of homelessness released in 2019 found that 35% of unsheltered people in San Francisco live in their vehicles, up from 13% in 2015. The number of SF Bay Area individuals living in their vehicles has continued to increase since, year after year; Alameda County observed a 39% increase in people living in cars and RVs between 2021 and 2022.

In response, Bay Area city officials have opened “safe” parking lots across the region, where people can sleep in their cars without fear of repercussions and get access to showers, bathrooms, and, depending on the location, social services.

The reality is that a substantial segment of those residing in their cars are drivers for Lyft or Uber, and the reasons, I learned — through deep dives in subreddits, interviews, and everything in between on the internet — span the gamut. Some commute hours from their apartments from as far as Sacramento or Fresno to take advantage of lucrative Bay Area surge pricing, choosing to spend days dotting around city parking lots rather than returning to their own beds, which sit in less profitable markets.

But without question, a large chunk of those who filled their cars with manmade morning dew live in them full-time because they were simply pushed out by the rising cost of living in the Bay Area or because of some other unfortunate circumstance.

When finding people to interview for this article I first published in 2019, I ventured to parking lots known to be frequented by car dwellers. I was formerly one myself, after all, so I was all too familiar with those addresses. I hand-wrote notes and wedged them between windshield wipers, hoping someone would get back to me.

In the end, two drivers were willing to talk, both of whom wanted to remain anonymous.

The first, a then-37-year-old man originally from Brazil who drives for Uber, said he had been parking at various lots overnight to sleep in for about five months, without a permanent home in his new country.

“I’m still struggling to find work here and a place to live,” he told me back in 2019. “English isn’t easy for me, and I have it on my Uber driver’s account that it’s my second language, so people understand I may not understand them completely.”

His work schedule wasn’t unlike that of others who were in a similar predicament. He typically drove from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. six or seven days a week, depending on “how much the nice people tip.”

“It’s the best time frame to make money,” he said. “Between surcharges and how busy it is, I always manage to find someone to pick up, sometimes as many as 32 rides a day.”

And to make sure that no one caught on to his pseudo-van life, the baritone-voiced man made sure to — quite literally — live small. “All my clothes, sleeping bag, pillow, toiletries, and other personal items can fit in the under-storage cargo area of my trunk. That way, if someone needs to use my trunk for something, I can do it and hide the fact that I’m living out of a Corolla.”

The other person who contacted me, a twentysomething woman who drove for both Uber and Lyft, said she hadn’t secured a “regular steady job with health insurance” since September 2018, when a now-defunct startup in San Francisco deemed her front-desk job an unnecessary financial burden.

“I’m a single, healthy female with no kids, so living out of my car was at least feasible,” she told me from her 2011 Camry’s driver’s seat, adding that she does the bulk of her drives in San Francisco.

It’s little wonder why the mid-Peninsula 24 Hour Fitness where I met her was a favorite among car-dwelling rideshare drivers at the time. It’s a spacious parking lot, umbrellaed by towering trees, and it’s often given a blind eye by passing law enforcement.

(Since this article’s publishing, the lot has become far less accommodating for overnighters sleeping in their cars. A recent late-night workout at the fitness center showed signs that read “no overnight parking,” and a security guard was noticed dipping in and out of the lot.

However, despite the signage and increased security presence, people were still sleeping in their cars — evident by the condensation collecting on some of the windows and windshields blocked by sun guards. Security seemed to place a blind eye to it; it’s also hard to regulate late-night parking for a business that operates at all hours of the day.)

“When I lost my job, my lease was almost up, and I knew I couldn’t afford the rent,” she explained in 2019. “My savings were nearly gone too. I don’t have a family to fall back on, so I thought I could do this and figure things out from there.”

And this millennial, who boasted a black, somewhat faded peace sign tattooed on her inner elbow, wasn’t alone. YouTube is nonetheless alive with twenty- and thirty-somethings who’ve embraced car (or van) life as a means to see themselves through these cash-strapped times. (This instance of nomadism still exists as a more somber counter to its resurgence that was birthed during the pandemic from WFH models adopted by high-earners.)

Yes, a handful of these youths glorified “digital nomads,” but it’s crystal clear that a larger (and growing) cohort is doing it out of sheer financial necessity.

Millennials aren’t the only demographic affected by the financial perils of driving full-time for Lyft and Uber. It’s everyone.

A 2019 study from the UCLA Labor Center revealed that for about two-thirds of drivers, their rideshare job was their main source of income. Uber’s 2022 Q4 report showed that there are now 5.4 million drivers and couriers — the latter contractor position becoming more popular with the growing demand for Uber Eats and its acquisition of Postamtes. This figure is expected to continue ballooning as the gig economy expands, which means more people will have some level of financial dependence tied to the platform.

Moreover: Many drivers still admit that they have trouble paying for essentials for the job, such as gas, insurance, and basic vehicle maintenance.

Uber, for example, can take up to about 50% of a driver’s compensation, excluding tips. Though this percentage is usually closer to 25%, this still leaves the net-profit margins on the skinnier side for many rideshare drivers. With consumer goods 13% more expensive across the board since 2021, driving for rideshare will only carry more income volatility as time goes on.

Before the fall of 2015, it wasn’t uncommon for rideshare drivers, principally those who drove for Uber, to easily crest $40/hour. But long gone are the promised lofty payouts for Bay Area Uber and Lyft drivers. Once UberPool, which was quickly followed by Lyft Line, was introduced to certain markets — including San Francisco and the greater Bay Area — drivers reported that their earnings were cut by more than half virtually overnight.

(The Covid-19 pandemic saw the shared passenger option lifted to contend with social distancing norms; the public health crisis also saw a sharp downtick in drivers on the platform. But by the second half of 2021, rideshare drivers were making “record earnings” as people again returned to the workforce and traveled for leisure; shared rides on Uber and Lyft remained unavailable in many markets at that time, and Uber and Lyft drivers failed to return in numbers to meet the increased demand — all of which played into numerous retained drivers making upwards of $2,000 a week.)

People were more than happy to save a few bucks to ride along with strangers long after those aforenoted services debuted, even if it (unknowingly) meant putting those behind the wheel in a state of financial insolvency.

Lyft, however, has now decided to “refocus” its business models, one of which emphasizes driver earnings; Lyft abandoned its shared rides option in May of this year, though UberX, formerly known as “UberPool,” remains active in over fifty markets and could expand in the future.

Though both Uber and Lyft regularly gift prolific drivers $500-plus bonuses for completing 100 or so trips in a week, it’s still a nominal amount when compared to the wage deficits they’re now facing — especially if the said driver has to work 14 hours a day, every day, in order to achieve that goal.

These pitfalls only feed into a vicious cycle of drivers living out of their cars to bolster their checking accounts and “get ahead,” hoping that they’ll later secure a physical address.

Right now, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,300 per month. A house? That’ll be a soul-crushing seven figures — despite a year-over-year drop of nearly 13% for the average house.

That’s why hotels like Travelodge, Comfort Inn & Suites, and Super 8 near SFO, for example, are a bastion for transient rideshare drivers as well. Just ask front-desk agents, as I did — four in total. One employee in 2019 estimated that over a quarter of the hotels are occupied by rideshare drivers seeking shelter before they begin their next shift. The financial logic here: by booking hotels and hostels near surging, bustling markets, drivers will be able to make up for the initial investment—and more. In the process, drivers will also gain an actual mattress to sprawl on top of after a long day’s work.

(I, too, called these same hotels earlier in July of this year to see if they were still frequented by out-of-county rideshare drivers. And I can report back these hotels are, indeed, evergreen strongholds for rideshare workers from outside the SF Bay Area.)

But as benevolent as new safe parking programs are in the Bay Area, they merely represent a three-inch bandage over a gaping bullet wound. They don’t address the gig economy’s financial shortcomings, particularly in relation to millennials and Gen-Zers; they don’t address the grossly inflated costs of living in the Bay Area and other national metros; they don’t, in the end, fasten down any sort of hope for a more stable, traditional way of life that so many of these car-inhabiting rideshare drivers yearn for.

“I don’t see myself doing this forever, because if I picture myself doing this for a few more years, I’ll go crazy,” my Brazilian source told me in closing — a line that continues to linger with me now almost four years out from our interview. “I just want a place to call home, a place where I can shower, sleep, and use the restroom.”

Feature image: Courtesy of San Francisco County Transportation Authority

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