The evening shadows aren’t yet long when we meet Rob (who requested we only use his first name) on Birdwood Avenue in front of the Shrine of Remembrance.
Sanjeev, our photographer, suggests we get started with the interview while waiting for the glare to mellow into a glow, and Rob makes a beeline for the shadier of the two park benches along the Tan Track.
He doesn’t like the sun, he explains. It turns out that he prefers staying in the shadows figuratively too.
Just as the runners who pass us instantly forget they saw us, so should, according to Rob, Uber riders be able to forget their drivers once the trip is over.
“We’re very forgettable,” he says easily. “Unless you say something really controversial or do something really stupid, you’re forgotten five minutes after the drop off. It’s not a bad thing. We’re just Uber drivers, we’re not here to make an impact on the world.”
Born in Holland, Rob arrived in Sydney when he was ten and moved to Melbourne in 1987 after his dad bought a business here. Two and half years ago, he discovered Uber and signed up as a driver almost immediately.
After six months of driving and photographing parts of Melbourne he had never seen before, he launched an Instagram account, aptly christened @melbourne.uber.driver, to showcase his visual diary.
His 11.1k followers are greeted each day with a new snapshot of yet another little known Melbourne nook accompanied by Rob’s musings, song lyrics or just the date. The photos are rich in both colour and perspective.
“Melbourne is such a fantastic city. Probably the best city in the world. I’ve travelled to many cities and it’s always such a good feeling to come home.”
I was in Europe two and a half years ago and I asked the hotel to call me a cab but they told me to get an Uber. That was the first time I had heard of Uber.
I downloaded the app, got one and thought it was great. The guy offered me water! You never get offered water in taxis! It was brilliant because I was really thirsty at the time.
I took my second Uber to the airport later and thought to myself, I can do this. I like driving. I signed up when I got back to Melbourne and two weeks later I was on the road.
The main reason was because I had goal of earning an extra $1,000 a month. But I needed something where I could choose my own hours because I have a full time job.
I’m a project manager in an IT company. Before that I was an aerospace engineer. I did that for about 20 years and then was made redundant during the global financial crisis. The aerospace industry pretty much collapsed in Australia so I decided not to go back. Working in IT is a bit more stable and it’s a growing industry. So I’ll stay for a while.
I make more than $1,000 a month. I usually drive until I reach my $250 target for the week and then I go home. Sometimes if I have more time, I keep driving but this doesn’t happen often.
If you like driving, it’s easy to do just one more trip, which turns into another and another. And then you get tired and make mistakes and that gets dangerous. If I’m behind my target and have to push myself to drive, it becomes a terrible experience. And then my ratings suffer.
The rating is calculated as an average of your last 500 regular trips. So one bad rating out of 500 won’t make a difference. But if your rating drops below 4.6, Uber can take you off the road. My rating is 4.9. I pride myself on my rating – I want it to be as high as possible.
Uber says it sends requests to drivers based purely on proximity but I don’t believe that. I do software and you never just have one rule; you always have secondary and tertiary rules as back ups. If two people are in exactly the same location, who gets the trip? There has to be another determinant and I suspect it’s rating.
I noticed that when my rating is at 4.9, I get trips that are further away and more lucrative. When it’s below 4.9, I get shorter trips.
I start work at 8am and I walk from my home in South Yarra to the office on St. Kilda Rd. I knock off at 4pm, have a nap and then dinner. I always prepare my dinners over the weekend so they’re all ready. Then I’ll start driving.
We don’t see where riders are going until we start the trip so I like to play a little game where I try to guess their destination based on their name, rating and suburb. If it’s James at 7pm on Saturday in Mount Waverly, he’s probably elderly and going into the city. I’m usually right. But if it’s Jeremy in Fitzroy on Tuesday night, I got no idea! I’ll think St Kilda but no, it’s Brunswick.
After a drop off, I park and wait rather than drive around. If I’m in the inner suburbs and don’t get a request straight away, I go back into the city. It’s always quiet between 8pm-9pm on weeknights so I’ll usually post something on Instagram or check emails and do some work while waiting.
I used to drive on Friday nights until 1am and all Saturday and Sunday. But I’m seeing someone now and I’d rather spend time with her so I only drive on some weeknights and on Sunday.
I was taking photos of parts of Melbourne that I’d never seen before and I showed them to my kids. They said the photos were really good and that I should post them on Instagram because I could make some money. That got my interest!
So I researched how to get followers and increase engagement and so on. And I decided early on that I wouldn’t show my face because it wasn’t about me. My followers grew like crazy. The most popular posts are sunsets, buildings in the city and gardens.
My goal was to get 10k followers. I thought once I reach that maybe there would be some sponsorship interest from companies. I reached 10k after a year but nothing happened. It’s all a bit of fun now. I spend a lot less time on Instagram now than I used to.
Once. A couple got in and the man was angry about the dinner they’d just had. The woman was arguing with him and he kept getting angrier and angrier to the point where he lost control and started punching her in the face. I told him to stop and he said, one more word out of you and I’ll snap you as well.
I pulled over and told him to get out. She was crying and apologising. I asked if she’d like to be dropped off elsewhere but she said no and left with him. What else could I do? That was scary. It brought that part of society right in my face. It did my head in for a while.
There have also been many times when I’ve done what I think were drug runs. When you pick up a girl in Caulfield and the surge is double and they’re going to Chapel Street for five minutes to pick something up and go back to Caulfield, you don’t ask questions. You know what’s going on.
On Mother’s Day I picked up this ninety-something lady who was visiting her daughter in Port Melbourne and going home to Glen Iris. She told me about how she decided to go back to work after having kids in the 1970s and her husband said no one would hire an old bag. But she worked for this company for 15 years and loved it. She said she normally drives but had too many wines that day. She’s in her nineties and still driving! I thought she was amazing.
I’ve always been good at that. As a project manager, doing the job well was less about managing costs and schedules and more about managing people and getting the best out of the team you’re given. You learn how to read people pretty quickly and you have to be diplomatic. All those skills transfer easily to a stranger coming into my car.
It’s nice when people have a conversation but not everyone wants to talk. I have the radio tuned to Gold because it won’t offend anyone. If I listen to my own music, my ratings will suffer because people won’t like alternative, heavy metal and Goth music from the 80s.
I used to offer mints and water too but I stopped with the water because people would go from St Kilda to Brighton and take four bottles! I would go through a slab of water in a couple of hours and would have to stop to buy more. I’m not going offline for that.
Riders don’t have to accept a surge. If you wait 10 minutes, it goes away. The reason it’s surging is because there’s more demand than supply. That’s how everything works, not just Uber.
For drivers, Uber isn’t something you can do occasionally. It’s either you do it seriously or you don’t do it at all.
Favourite city street: Flinders Street
Favourite topic of conversation: The weather
Most interesting suburb: Fitzroy
Best place to park and wait during rush hour: Collins Street
Best advice to Melbourne drivers: Be patient