Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Uber and Lyft traffic is picking up as the Philadelphia area reopens. What will happen when more drivers return to the road?

Selfies, face masks, and safety guidelines: Welcome to rideshare during a pandemic.

Otniel Agape Tjan looks out from the driver side of his car near Oregon Street in South Philadelphia. Precautions to protect against the coronavirus include a barrier he's hung to separate himself from passengers.
Otniel Agape Tjan looks out from the driver side of his car near Oregon Street in South Philadelphia. Precautions to protect against the coronavirus include a barrier he's hung to separate himself from passengers.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

As the weeks pass, it’s “getting busier and busier” for Uber and Lyft driver Robert Rosa.

Rideshare is his full-time gig after the coronavirus swallowed his restaurant job. But he’s not complaining. With other drivers remaining at home and passengers now looking to get around since Philadelphia has reopened, the requests have “picked up quite a bit” after the initial slowdown.

“There’s some people that I’ve gotten in my car, they say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re the only driver out here,’” said Rosa, 48, of Dover, Del. “‘Thank you for picking me up. I’ve been waiting for an Uber or Lyft driver an hour and a half, two hours to get to where I’ve got to go.’”

Rosa said he feels safe, and his doctor concurs so long as he takes the proper precautions, such as washing his hands and sanitizing his car. Although the companies require face coverings and share safety guidelines with riders and drivers to protect against COVID-19, some drivers would like to see more done as commuters weigh their options and more drivers trickle back onto the roads.

Angela Vogel, an Uber driver and Philadelphia Drivers Union member, has renewed the call for greater rights for app-based workers. Though drivers who are on the roads may be making more money than usual, she said, “even a little more than usual is still not really great pay.”

“It’s going to be a situation where nobody’s really able to make enough driving,” said Vogel, 39 of Port Richmond. “… It was already the case prior to the pandemic, and now that situation’s going to be worse.”

The ‘new’ rideshare

Those returning to rideshare should take note of some changes.

Uber and Lyft have indefinitely paused their discounted shared-ride features that put multiple passengers heading in a similar direction into one car. Riders are also discouraged from hopping in the front seat.

Before Uber drivers go active for their day, they must take a selfie to prove they’re wearing a face mask. Passengers are asked to agree to a checklist of precautions, including wearing a facial covering, in the app before their ride.

The company also said it has distributed more than 135,000 health and safety supplies, including masks and disinfectants, to drivers in Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: Philly riders can book an Uber for hours at a time

Julian Brelsford, an Uber driver, would like to see the same mask requirement asked of riders. He doesn’t have a lot of tolerance “for the halfway,” he said, and wasn’t shy to report a group not wearing masks.

“What they tell us is that if we report passengers for not wearing masks, multiple reports of that nature will result in them losing their passenger account,” said Brelsford, 37, of Southwest Philly. “To me, I think it should be two strikes and you’re out, end of story.”

Lyft riders and drivers need to “self-certify” that they’ll wear a facial covering, don’t have coronavirus symptoms, and follow other health guidelines. Both companies said they are not penalizing drivers who cancel trips because passengers aren’t wearing masks.

Drivers “have to wear a mask, but the customers don’t?” said Ali Razak, Philadelphia Drivers Union representative. “Uber says yeah, the customer has to, too, but what are you doing to ensure that?”

Weighing the risks

Claire Baker, 56, of Springfield, Delaware County, stopped driving for Lyft in March. The $800 a month it gave her in supplemental income is not worth the risk, she said, despite texts and emails from Lyft trying to entice her to drive again. Plus, her living expenses have gone down with so much time spent indoors.

“Will I return to driving for Lyft in the next six months?” Baker said. “Probably not. I’m going to wait and see what’s going on, and in the meantime I’m just going to see what else I can figure out in terms of filling the cash gap.”

It’s decisions such as Baker’s that may be shifting work to others such as Joseph Jacovelli, 46, of South Philly, who’s been driving for Uber throughout the pandemic.

He’s on the job part time but said business has been steady — even at the Philadelphia International Airport.

“There’s times where I actually have to shut the app off,” Jacovelli said.

Vogel is wondering how the loss of the $600 weekly unemployment benefit that ends this month will affect drivers, as well as the fate of Councilmember Kendra Brooks’ bill extending paid sick leave, including for gig workers.

» READ MORE: Philly gig workers could get paid sick leave during coronavirus under a bill by Councilmember Kendra Brooks

Both Uber and Lyft said they are paying drivers who are diagnosed with coronavirus, or who are required to self-isolate.

Vogel and Razak take issue with the closure of Uber’s “Greenlight Hub” in Southwest Philly, a place where drivers could go to get in-person help with myriad issues, such as paperwork or onboarding, rather than navigate through the app. Lyft’s “Driver Center” in Frankford is open.

”It’s absurd to me that simply by calling us ‘independent contractors,’ they somehow manage to get away with not having any kind of an HR office for us,” Vogel said.

Uber has closed hubs throughout the nation in response to the coronavirus, hoping “to reopen them as soon as public-health authorities believe it is appropriate,” the company said in a statement. It has expanded online and phone support to accommodate drivers, Uber said.

Rideshare or SEPTA?

There’s no quick answer for riders wondering whether rideshare or public transportation is a “safer” bet, said James Lo, assistant professor at Drexel University’s department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering.

Public transportation may have the leg up on surface cleaning because of the dedicated staff charged with enhanced efforts, but the opportunity for riders to control air ventilation may work in rideshare’s favor.

Lo suggests rideshare passengers open windows to bring in some fresh air. But there’s no need to turn off the air-conditioning either as the dog days of summer descend.

“Just crack it open a little — that’s all that it takes,” he said. “You don’t have to open all the way down and get hot.”

At the same time, Lo stresses that riders shouldn’t be afraid of taking public transportation. “Just make sure you protect yourself, wash your hands — you should be OK,” he said.

» READ MORE: Your new SEPTA commute: Staggered work shifts, masks, and blocked seats

But Carolyn Cannuscio, a social epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said rideshare may be a safer choice just because there are fewer people to interact with.

“It’s also good to see cities opening up safer options for pedestrians and bicycle/scooter riders,” she said in an email. “If your body, mind, and itinerary will allow, then using these outdoor modes of transport is a safer bet for reducing COVID risk.”

Pennsylvania also has its own guidelines when taking rideshare, including improved ventilation and practicing good hand hygiene.

Otniel Agape Tjan, 51, of South Philly, has stopped using his air conditioner regardless, feeling that the ventilation will better protect him as an Uber driver against the coronavirus.

It’s just one mitigation measure he’s adopted, alongside a wipe-down of his car every morning and a clear barrier he’s hung up to separate riders in the backseat from himself.

“I am getting old,” Tjan said. “I have to take care [of] myself.”