By Carolyn Said
San Francisco Chronicle.
Thousands of women have gotten behind the wheel as paid drivers for Lyft, Sidecar and UberX, changing the status quo in a traditionally male-dominated field.
The smartphone-summoned ride companies, all from San Francisco, offer working conditions with particular appeal to women drivers: flexible hours and robust security safeguards.
Just 3 percent of San Francisco taxi drivers are women, according to a 2013 survey commissioned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Lyft said a third of its drivers are women, while Sidecar said 40 percent are. Uber did not provide data.
“I tell all my girlfriends they should drive; it’s so flexible, it’s extra cash and it’s safe,” said Jessy Oates, 34, one of the first 10 Lyft drivers when it started 21/2 years ago.
To help save up for a house, she drives through all three services on nights and weekends after putting in a full day as an executive assistant at UC Berkeley.
Safety is built into the ride-apps’ DNA. Passengers’ identities and credit-card numbers are known before they step into a vehicle, dramatically reducing the chances that a rider will rob or assault a driver — a real risk for taxi drivers, who must pick up random street hails.
That’s why traditional cab driving ranks among the most dangerous professions with a homicide rate more than 21 times the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I always know in advance who’s getting in my car and their rating by other drivers,” said Erin Kennedy, 49, another early Lyft driver who now works through all three services after her day job as a manufacturers’ sales rep to help put her three sons through college.
Other safeguards are that drivers don’t carry cash, since payments are handled via stored credit cards, and that GPS allows the companies to track each vehicle’s location.
Lots of leeway in scheduling is also a big draw. Taxi drivers work long hours — often 10 or 12 a day — to make money on top of the $100-plus per day they pay medallion holders for the right to drive.
App services let drivers work as few or as many hours as they like, vary their schedules from day to day, and take off days or weeks at a time.
“Flexibility is very important for workers who have constraints, for example, because of children or other family commitments,” said Enrico Moretti, a labor economist at UC Berkeley. “Being able to start and stop working as much as they want is important for all workers, but relatively more important for women.”
Bridget Santos, 51, exemplifies squeezing driving in between family obligations. She leaves her Oakland home before 7 every morning to drop off her kids at three different San Francisco schools. Then she gets coffee, turns on the Lyft app and drives until it’s time to pick up the first kid at 3 p.m.
“It’s worked out wonderfully,” she said. As a single mom, the $25 or $30 an hour she makes from Lyft is her primary income.
“If one of the kids is sick, I can just turn off the app and pick her up,” she said. “I don’t have to answer to anyone.” Of course, there is a flip side to that. “If you don’t work, you don’t get paid, so I make sure I drive every day.”
Taxi companies hope to attract more women drivers, said Charles Rathbone, a spokesman for San Francisco’s Luxor Cab, whose female workforce is higher than MTA’s 3 percent figure “but in that ballpark,” he said.
As drivers and passengers have migrated to the startups, taxi companies now have job openings. Several leading companies and the MTA will soon launch recruiting efforts, Rathbone said.
“Our very first item was: Why are we missing out on 50 percent of the labor force?” he said. “We are actively pursuing and trying to address that.”
Rathbone said taxi security has greatly increased in the past decade, as all cabs are equipped with video cameras. But scheduling remains a barrier. “Being able to take off on demand if a kid is sick, for instance, and flexibility in hours (working less than 10-hour days) is something we are looking at, but unfortunately don’t have ready solutions,” he said.
Sidecar found that most its drivers use the app part-time to supplement other endeavors. Its women drivers — mostly between ages 26 and 32 — include a pastor, YouTube star, teachers, personal trainer, medical students, pop-up boutique owner, solar engineer and stay-at-home moms, it said.
Many use the service’s features to only accept rides in the direction they’re already heading to commute to work or school, said co-founder and CEO Sunil Paul.
Susan Barrick, 55, started driving for Sidecar when she realized doing massage full time was hurting her hands. “I love it because I can pick up a shift when I’m on my way to work, or when I’m done with a client and have extra time,” she said.
Sidecar lets passengers choose drivers from a short list of available cars nearby. “We hear that women riders are drawn to Sidecar because they can choose women drivers,” Paul said.
“Women passengers were always thrilled to see me,” said Kennedy, who started driving for Lyft in San Francisco two years ago when all the services were still new. “They would spill their guts about bad experiences they’d had with male drivers.”
Maryann Hrichak, 57, started driving for UberX four months ago after getting laid off. She’s paid her bills by driving during the morning and evening commute hours over the summer, allowing her to spend time with a houseful of guests.
An anthropologist by training, Hrichak said it’s a perfect gig for meeting people from all over the world. “I write every day about my customers and interactions; at some point I will publish it,” she said.
Kennedy grew up driving big cars on fast freeways in Southern California. As an East Bay mom of three boys, she got used to ferrying around whole baseball teams. “I have that maternal instinct to make sure all the chicks get home safely,” she said.
Her mom training has come in handy in other ways.
Every once in a while if a passenger behaves badly, I say, ‘Are we gonna have to call your mother?'” she said. “That does the trick.”