The relationship between Cal Poly students and the permanent residents of San Luis Obispo isn’t always a particularly sound marriage. Students look across the train tracks and see a community with little interest in the antics of college. The common sentiment that they’re just trying to ruin our fun carries through the breeze down the student enclave that is Hathway Street. The community retorts with noise ordinances and the parental demand for order. Few empathetic concessions are made, and either end of San Luis Obispo is a mystery to the other.
Brandon Jones was afforded the unique opportunity to work a job that effortlessly jumped over the line that divides the town. Uber drivers cart both students and town folk — the application does not discriminate. Uber drivers’ experiences come in bite-sized form. They gain momentary insight on the life of whoever climbs into the passenger seat.
Jones is a San Luis Obispo resident and 1984 Cal Poly graduate. He and his wife, Nancy Douglas, began to drive in order to mitigate their teenage son’s incoming college tuition. When they weren’t on the clock with Uber, Jones writes about financial markets and helps create e-books while Douglas works at Cuesta College as a facilities coordinator.
When they began in June, two things happened. First, Jones and Douglas interacted with Cal Poly students on a much more intimate level, which led them to see that students are people too.
“The loudest voice is the one that always gets heard,” Jones said. “At Cal Poly, the voices that are heard are the people who are downtown on a Saturday night or the party up the street from your house. There are 19,000 students at Cal Poly. My guess is that 70 percent (of students) aren’t those people. They’re just coming here to do their thing, get an education, get out in the world and grow up. Those were the people we were meeting a lot of.”
The next, more implicative realization Jones and Douglas crossed was that while most rides weren’t particularly profound, their unique positions as Uber drivers exposed them to a myriad of quintessentially human moments. Jones created a blog, “The Uber Files,” to chronicle their experiences under the monikers Mr. and Mrs. Uber Driver.
“One thing led to another, and I was meeting so many cool people we decided to put up ‘The Uber Files’ and start telling the story of these people we were meeting,” he said.
According to Douglas, the purpose of the moniker wasn’t to hide themselves from Uber. Jones and Douglas point out that Uber, being a monolithic company, sees any publicity as good publicity.
“Uber seems to be of the mindset that any publicity is good,” Douglas said. “It’s a little bit like Donald Trump, it doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative, the word ‘Uber’ is getting out there. We felt pretty safe.”
Either way, the content of “The Uber Files” isn’t inflammatory about the characters — who remain unnamed, anyway. Jones and Douglas found their way into fascinating, fleeting glimpses of riders and they want to share the experience.
“There were some buttheads for sure, but if you’re a positive person, you find the positive in life,” Jones said. “If not, you write about the shitty stuff, but my goal in meeting people was: ‘Yeah, let’s spread the word and goodness.’ God knows there’s enough horror in the world.”
Douglas echoed her husband’s words, mentioning that it isn’t particularly hard to stay positive while driving in San Luis Obispo.
“The number of kids who I met who are doing really cool things and are excited about what they’re doing — it’s inspiring,” she said.
That mentality shines through the stories, which aren’t always particularly light-hearted in content, but always find something redeeming in the experience.
The first story published on the blog was from Jones. He sat in the driver’s seat, a fly on the wall, while the man in the backseat tried to convince the woman he was with to have sex with him. The man cited the woman’s promiscuous ways with his friends as a reason for her to submit, despite her clear disinterest.
“Then, the girl leans forward and she says to me, ‘Mr. Uber Driver, you don’t think I’m a slut or something, do you?’ I said, ‘Kiddo, it’s not my place to judge you. You can trust me on this. You’re going to be the best judge of you your whole life.’ Then they went back to the conversation.”
Back to a fly on the wall.
When he posted the story, he concluded with two realizations. “I had no need to judge her sexual escapades because I remembered my own youthful indiscretions and realized that kids today are fundamentally no different than they were a few decades ago,” Jones said.
The next piece of parting wisdom came along with the fact that soon his own son would be the age of the man in the back seat.
“I sincerely hoped (my son) would not be that guy in my back seat,” he said.
Unfortunately for Mr. and Mrs. Uber Driver, the price of tickets into the lives of strangers became too high. According to the Jones and Douglas, Uber cut the wages for its drivers three times between June 2015 and January 2016. Uber is a company, and the human condition doesn’t necessarily equate to profit.
Last month, Jones and Douglas concluded their employment with Uber. Despite the unique experience it provided, pay lowered beyond a threshold considered sustainable by the couple.
“I’m most disappointed with Uber itself,” Douglas said. “I’m most sad about the fact that it has to be the corporate machination that they’re taking this path. It’s just disappointing.”
According to Jones, the phenomenon, while disappointing, wasn’t anything new.
“It’s traditional corporatocracy,” he said. “The first goal is to capture the market. We’ve certainly seen that in the Industrial Era. Go build the machines, get the people involved and then cut the wages.”
A cut in wages isn’t the only change in dynamic for the Uber economy in San Luis Obispo. Another local Uber driver, mechanical engineering junior Chris Splees, noted that San Luis Obispo has become a less enticing place to drive for reasons other than lower wages.
“You get such short trips here, so you don’t ever really know what’s coming. I can’t calculate what gets deducted until after the fact with gas, taxes and things like that. If I do make a $5 trip and I only see $2.50, it doesn’t end up being worth it.”
According to Splees, a spike in available drivers has also overflooded the area.
Despite changes that ended the short-lived Uber Files, Jones and Douglas’ micro encounters with the human condition will last forever. Those interactions are available on their website, theuberfiles.com in the form of 13 blog posts. Brandon and Nancy aren’t so bitter about being pushed out of the business. They’re just happy some folks came along for the ride.
“In the end,” Jones grinned with his eyes, “we are altruistic.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Chris Splees’ name and incorrectly referred to Nancy Douglas as Nancy Jones.