WNC ride-share drivers discuss benefits, drawbacks of life on the road

GOING MOBILE: Local ride-share drivers say Asheville offers opportunities to make money if you know what you're doing. iStock photo

Joel Bender has only one rule about what hours he works as an Uber driver.

“I’m retired, and I damn well do it when I damn well please,” the Asheville man says with a laugh. “That is the best part of this: You get to turn it on and turn it off when you want.”

Bender is one of hundreds — or possibly thousands — of people in the Asheville area who earn money by driving other people around. Some work for national app-based ride-share services like Uber and Lyft. Others ply their trade for local companies like Asheville Taxi Co., which offers the AVL Ride app. And a few bypass the middleman entirely by offering private rides.

Drivers interviewed by Xpress say the Asheville ride-share market presents opportunities to make money, mainly due to the influx of tourists in the summer and fall and a vibrant bar and live music scene. At the same time, Western North Carolina’s relatively small population spread out over several counties poses challenges not seen in bigger cities.

The key to earning in Asheville is to be strategic about where and when you drive and what kinds of passengers you pick up, they say. And not every driver employs the same strategy.

“They kind of send you out there on your own,” Bender says. “You have to sort your way through it, which I thought was an interesting challenge. The more you learn, the better you get at it, the better your earnings become.”

Some never figure it out.

“When I started seven years ago, there were only about 16 of us that worked this area, and we all worked the airport primarily,” says Christina Bentley. “And then every year we got a flock of new drivers that would come in, and they wouldn’t last long. They would end up quitting, mainly because they didn’t know how to make a profit off doing this.”

Those who do stick with it find the driving life attractive for a number of reasons: You set your own schedule. You meet interesting people — one local driver even gave Steve Martin a ride.

“I know more about Asheville than I did before, and I just enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories,” says Megan Smith, who started driving for Uber a few months ago because she needed income and a flexible schedule while trying to get her acupuncture business off the ground.

Nearly a decade after national ride-share services entered the Asheville market, Xpress checks in with drivers as they contend with decreased pay, high gas prices, wear and tear on their cars, and logistical difficulties at Asheville Regional Airport due to ongoing construction. And they say some passengers can be unruly, obnoxious or even dangerous.

 Timing is everything

No one keeps track of exactly how many ride-share drivers work in Asheville, but a Facebook page for local drivers lists more than 600 members. The group includes people who live as far away as Tennessee and South Carolina and who come to the area to work.

Bender, one of the administrators of the page, estimates that about 2,500 drivers are out and about on a typical Saturday night. That number is down considerably from pre-pandemic levels. A lot of the decrease, he says, is a result of Uber and Lyft reducing the percentage of each fare that drivers pocket.

“We used to be able to make $300-$400 easily on a Friday or Saturday night. I don’t know how you would do that today,” says Bender, who has given 13,000 rides over the past seven years. 

Drivers are responsible for their own gas, insurance, taxes and other expenses, further cutting into how much they benefit financially from driving. 

Still, Bender and others agree that drivers can make money if they are smart about it. One key is to figure out the best times to work. For many, that means weekends, especially during tourist season.

“On a Friday, it’s going to kick into gear about 3 p.m., and it’s probably not going to stop until after the bars close,” says Woodward McKee, owner of Asheville Taxi Co. “Saturday, it’s busy all afternoon, then a lull, and then totally crazy again Saturday night, and then very, very early Sunday morning is a huge rush. Everyone’s going to the airport.”

Smith says she nets about $20 an hour working Thursday-Sunday evenings.

But riders can be found at less obvious times as well.

“No matter what day of the week it is, and no matter what time of the year it is, it’s always going to be busy between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. because everybody’s trying to get to work,” says Joel Clark, who drove for Uber and Lyft for more than a year before launching Roll with Joel in August 2022. The service caters to tourists by offering flat-fee rides to the airport, brewery tours, Blue Ridge Parkway drives and more.

“You make more money at night and on the weekends when the bars let out, but you have to deal with drunk people, and I refused to do that. I already got enough day drinkers as it was.”

Brad Kilbury started driving for Uber 2 1/2 years ago after knee surgery sidelined him from his regular job at Tyson Furniture Co. He saw it as a temporary gig.

“But I figured out it was making me more money than doing hard labor every day,” he says. “So, I just stuck with that instead of going back to work.”

He is reluctant to discuss his specific income but says he makes enough to keep him going.

Like Clark, he prefers to drive on weekdays, usually starting out around 5 a.m. and taking local residents without cars to work. Around 8:30 a.m., he heads to the airport to pick up newly arrived passengers and generally finishes up his day around 2 or 3 p.m.

He says many other drivers avoid picking up people headed to work. Those folks are often down on their luck and are less likely to tip than tourists, he says.

Bender, who worked as a cabdriver in New York decades ago, agrees that tourists make the best tippers. And he takes advantage by employing his considerable gift for gab.

“I generally engage my passengers in a lot of conversation, asking them about themselves and telling them a lot about myself,” he says. “They get a kick out of that. They want to know where to eat. They’re fascinated by the history of the town. Other drivers are just simply never going to be either raconteurs or personable enough to make that connection.”

Dangerous work

Most drivers say the majority of passenger interactions are positive, whether they are driving locals or tourists. 

“I’ve only kicked one person out of my car in 20,000 rides,” Bentley says. 

Still, they acknowledge the potential danger inherent in the job. Smith remembers picking up a “sketchy-looking dude” she felt uncomfortable with. Kilbury had a man threaten to kill him. Anne Serpa was robbed at knifepoint. More than one driver has had a passenger with a gun.

“I don’t ever go past midnight,” Smith says. “I have a dashcam. Anybody that gets in my car, I have them tell me their name and make sure it’s the name on the app.”

The risks of the job were brought home by a gruesome New Year’s Eve murder that sent shockwaves through Asheville’s ride-share community.

Uber driver Julia Holland was shot in the back of the head in Canton by a passenger she picked up at the Treasure Club, an Asheville strip club, according to police. Her body had been mutilated when authorities found it.

 Noah Bolden of Canton has been charged with first-degree murder in the case.

Holland was a member of the Facebook group and a good friend of many local drivers, Bender says. 

“About half our membership are women, and the tragedy that occurred seemed to discourage many of them,” he says.

Police say Bolden, who had gotten Uber rides from Holland in the past, texted her directly to get a ride rather than going through the app. Some drivers work off-app at times because it allows them to keep the entire fare.

Giving the ride off-app meant Uber had no record of the ride or the passenger, making the police investigation more difficult.

“We discourage people from doing that, but they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” Bender says. 

Some drivers carry Mace and other forms of protection, though they prefer not to give away too many details.

Kilbury, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 325 pounds, says he generally hasn’t felt in much danger, even when the passenger threatened to kill him. But he says Uber does a poor job of providing support to drivers and passengers who do sense danger. “I feel like they don’t really care. The responses you get from them on stuff, it’s all automated.”

But an Uber spokesperson takes issue with that characterization.

“Uber takes the safety of all users seriously, which is why we continue to invest in critical safety features like the ability to chat with a live safety agent, record trip audio in the app and share your trip with loved ones,” the spokesperson says. “In addition, we send safety information and tips to drivers that were developed in partnership with law enforcement.”

Safety concerns are one reason some drivers and passengers prefer to use Asheville Taxi Co. and its AVL Ride app, McKee says. Unlike Uber or Lyft, the company uses dispatchers rather than relying entirely on technology.

“We generally have at least two dispatchers watching our much smaller fleet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he explains. “Our older customers in particular, or single women by themselves, feel safer knowing that they could just call the office if anything goes sideways. They can actually talk to a person, and you really can’t do that on an app.”

Founded in 2014, Asheville Taxi has hundreds of gig drivers in its system, with about 50 or so working in any given week, McKee says. In addition, the company maintains a fleet of eight sedans, four passenger vans and a Chevrolet Suburban to make sure it can cover requests even when it doesn’t have a lot of gig drivers working.

About half of Asheville Taxi’s business is from its app, with the rest coming from people who call after discovering the company through Google or a hotel front-desk clerk. “A lot of that has to do with a time-sensitive reservation, like where they need to be picked up without fail at 4 in the morning on Sunday. It’s not easy for big apps to guarantee that’s going to happen.”

Demand unmet

Clark says he founded Roll with Joel because he saw a need in the market.

“I always tell my customers that we’re a city of under 100,000 that sees over 11 million tourists a year,” he explains. “There’s just not enough people interested in transportation here in town to meet that kind of demand.”

Despite a decline in tourism from 2022’s record-breaking year, demand for rides is strong, Clark and other drivers say. He expects plenty of business during leaf season.

Clark is plugged into many high-end resorts and hotels in the area and offers rides onto the Biltmore Estate grounds and to whitewater rafting and zip lining businesses in places like Marshall and Barnardsville.

He is not the only local driver who sees the benefits of offering non-app-based rides.

Bentley recently started a company and now does more private rides than rides through Uber and Lyft. She gets the word out through Yelp ads and local Airbnb owners. Through her service, she has done flat-fee rides to airports in Charlotte and Atlanta and driven to Virginia.

“My longest trip was to Melbourne, Fla., with two Great Dane puppies,” she says. “A breeder here needed to deliver the dogs. They were my best guests.”

Serpa, the driver who had Steve Martin as a passenger and was robbed at knifepoint (on different trips, we should point out), also offers private rides. She once drove an Asheville woman to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a family reunion. The family paid for the ride and for Serpa to stay in a hotel for the night.

“I’ve got stories for days,” she says with a laugh. “At least enough for a 90-minute Netflix special [about] doing this type of work.”

Bender says working as an Asheville Uber driver is nothing like his experiences of driving a New York cab in his early 20s. 

“I wouldn’t want to do this there, I wouldn’t want to do this in Atlanta or Chicago,” he says. “But as a tourist town, these people aren’t trying to get to a meeting, they’re not in a rush. They’re here to enjoy themselves, they’re in a better mood.”

And passengers never have any trouble finding his car, he says, even though he doesn’t use the lighted signage you see on so many rideshare cars.

They simply have to look for the license plate that reads “IMURUBR (I’m your Uber).”


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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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