Your Private Driver: Just the Tip

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for transportation network company (TNC) platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

It’s been some week for Uber news, hasn’t it? The departure of CEO Travis Kalanick made headlines, particularly since he joins a dozen other executives that have left the company so far this year. The spat with Waymo isn’t over yet. And the debate over whether or not Uber can survive the next few years without going bankrupt will provide fodder for tech and financial blogs for the foreseeable future. For my part, however, this week I wanted to focus on some more positive news coming from Uber HQ: the “180 Days of Change” campaign designed to finally address long-standing driver complaints and grievances about the platform. 

The first change, and probably the biggest one, is the addition of in-app tipping, available now in the Seattle, Minneapolis, and Houston markets, and scheduled to roll out in the rest of the U.S. by the end of July. Drivers have been begging for this feature for years, especially since every other TNC company, including Lyft, has had in-app tipping from their inceptions. As late as April of last year, Uber was staunchly against adding a tip button, making this change of tune even more shocking. Tips currently are rare on Uber, partially because the necessity to carry cash makes the process inconvenient, and partially because the company still advertises their service as tip-free.

Prior to this announcement it was common for me to get at least one rider a day who wondered if it was possible to tip via the Uber app, so I expect this change will please a lot of riders as well. Shockingly, a large number of reddit users and internet commenters have also voiced their opposition to the new policy. Among them, the majority opinion is that they’d rather pay higher base fares than have to worry about a tip. Others have said that this is the last straw that will cause them to never order another Uber again. (Quite frankly if this is the last straw and not any of the other exploitative or sexist practices that have come to light over the past year, I have to wonder about your moral priorities.) In their eyes, Uber was the company that finally took a stand against the social awkwardness of American tipping culture.

The debate over tipping in general is another can of worms entirely. Maybe it’s because I’m an old man and was born and raised in a time before the internet was a part of everyone’s minute-to-minute life, but I’ve never found tipping to be an awkward experience; you tip to reward good service, and you don’t give anything for subpar service. Admittedly the app-based payment culture that urban America inhabits has changed expectations somewhat. Under normal circumstances there’d be no reason to tip the Starbucks barista or the person who bagged your poké bowl to-go order, but thanks to the Starbucks app and Square readers, that’s become something of an unexpected requirement.

Thankfully TNC apps avoid the awkward moments by not requiring the rider to decide a tip amount while the driver is staring them down; they can do it from the comfort of their smartphones long after their driver has gone off on the next call. This also will eliminate the much-complained about practice of tip hustling by Uber drivers. The best part, if you decide to not leave a tip, your driver will not know until hours or even days later, and they can’t leave a retaliatory rating.

But here’s hoping that you, dear reader, will not be a member of the no-tip brigade. If your driver has provided you with excellent service, there’s now no reason not to kick him or her an extra dollar or two. It’s pocket change for you, but it makes a world of difference to your driver. Trust me.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Uber and Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!