Outside a 24 Hour Fitness in San Mateo, side-saddling a commercial office space and a tiered parking structure, a swath of strategically tinted cars sit parked, veiled by thin layers of condensation coating their windshields. It’s obvious that people have spent the night inside them, presumably cocooned somewhere either in the back seat or the spacious hatch. Many attempt privacy measures — some using towels or sheets or other fabrics stuffed under the windows to block out wandering eyes.
Most display a shared vocational decal: Lyft or Uber.
While most don’t associate hailing a rideshare with the notion of stepping foot inside someone’s home, that’s exactly what some passengers are doing.
The number of people living in their cars overall in the Bay Area has dramatically increased in recent years. The most recent survey of the homeless, released in 2019, found that 600 (roughly 8%) of all the near as much 8,000 homeless people estimated to be in the city live in their vehicles, up from 13% in 2015.
In response, city officials have recently announced plans to open the first “safe” parking lot near the Balboa Park BART station, where people can sleep in their cars without fear of repercussions and get access to showers, bathrooms, and social services.
The reality is that a substantial segment of those residing in their cars are drivers for Lyft or Uber, and the reasons, I’ve learned — through deep dives in subreddits, interviews, and everything in between on the internet — span the gamut. Some commute hours from their apartments as far as Sacramento or Fresno to take advantage of lucrative Bay Area surge pricing, choosing to spend days dotting around city parking lots rather than returning to their own beds, which sit in less profitable markets.
But without question, a large chunk of those filling their cars with manmade morning dew live in them full-time because they’ve simply been pushed out by the rising cost of living in the Bay Area or because of some other unfortunate circumstance.
“All my clothes, sleeping bag, pillow, toiletries, and other personal items can fit in the under-storage cargo area of my trunk. That way, if someone needs to use my trunk for something, I can do it and hide the fact that I’m living out of a Corolla.” — Uber driver
And the number in the recent survey count is likely lower than the reality — car dwellers who work in the gig economy during the day in dense, overcrowded cities, like San Francisco, often choose to find respite elsewhere in safer, more low-key (and less police patrolled) areas to park in overnight, oftentimes miles away from those the US Department of Housing and Urban Development are performing headcounts on for such surveys. Such is the case with the lot in San Mateo, which is outside the head-count zone.
To find people to interview for this article, I ventured to parking lots known to be frequented by car dwellers. I was formerly one myself, after all, so I was all too familiar with those addresses. I hand wrote notes and wedged them between windshield wipers, hoping someone would get back to me. In the end, two drivers were willing to talk, both of whom wanted to remain anonymous.
The first, a 37-year-old man originally from Brazil who drives for Uber, said he had been parking at various lots overnight to sleep for about five months now, without a permanent home in his new country.
“I’m still struggling to find work here and a place to live,” he said. “English isn’t easy for me, and I have it on my Uber driver’s account that it’s my second language, so people understand I may not understand them completely.”
His work schedule isn’t unlike that of others who are in a similar predicament. He typically drives from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. six or seven days a week, depending on “how much the nice people tip.”
“It’s the best time frame to make money,” he said. “Between surcharges and how busy it is, I always manage to find someone to pick up, sometimes as many as 32 rides a day.”
And to make sure that no one catches on to his psuedo van life, the baritone-voiced man makes sure to—quite literally—live small. “All my clothes, sleeping bag, pillow, toiletries, and other personal items can fit in the under-storage cargo area of my trunk. That way, if someone needs to use my trunk for something, I can do it and hide the fact that I’m living out of a Corolla.”
The other person who contacted me, a 20-something woman who drives for both Uber and Lyft, said she hasn’t had a “regular steady job with health insurance” since September 2018, when a now-defunct startup in San Francisco deemed her front-desk job an unnecessary financial burden.
“I’m a single, healthy female with no kids, so living out of my car was at least feasible,” she told me from her 2011 Camry’s driver’s seat, adding that she does the bulk of her drives in San Francisco.
It’s little wonder why the mid-Peninsula 24 Hour Fitness where I met her is a favorite among car-dwelling rideshare drivers. It’s a spacious parking lot, umbrellaed by towering trees, and often given a blind eye by passing law enforcement.
Over 40% of drivers admit that they have trouble paying for essentials for the job, such as gas, insurance, and basic vehicle maintenance.
“When I lost my job, my lease was almost up, and I knew I couldn’t afford the rent,” she explained. “My savings was nearly gone too. I don’t have a family to fall back on, so I thought I could do this and figure things out from there.”
And this millennial, boasting a black, somewhat faded peace sign on her inner elbow, isn’t alone. YouTube is alive with 20- and 30-somethings who’ve embraced car (or van) life as a means to see themselves through these cash-strapped times. Yes, a handful of these young ’uns are glorified “digital nomads,” but it’s crystal clear that a larger (and growing) cohort are doing it out of sheer financial necessity.
But millennials aren’t the only demographic affected by the financial perils of driving full-time for Lyft and Uber—it’s everyone. A recent study from the UCLA Labor Center revealed that for about two-thirds of drivers, their rideshare job is their main source of income. The downside? Over 40% of drivers admit that they have trouble paying for essentials for the job, such as gas, insurance, and basic vehicle maintenance. Thus, this leaves the net-profit margins on the skinnier side for many rideshare drivers.
Before the fall of 2015, it wasn’t uncommon for rideshare drivers, principally those who drove for Uber, to easily crest $40/hour. But long gone are the promised lofty payouts for Bay Area Uber and Lyft drivers. Once UberPool, which was quickly followed by Lyft Line, was introduced in 2015 to certain markets — including San Francisco and the greater Bay Area — drivers reported that their earnings were cut by more than half virtually overnight.
People were more than happy to save a few bucks to ride along with strangers, even if it (unknowingly) meant putting those behind the wheel in a state of financial insolvency. Though both Uber and Lyft regularly gift prolific drivers $500-plus bonuses for completing 100 or so trips in a week, it’s still a nominal amount when compared to the wage deficits they’re now facing—especially if said driver has to work 14 hours a day, every day, in order to achieve that goal.
These pitfalls only feed into a vicious cycle of drivers living out of their cars to bolster their checking accounts and “get ahead,” hoping that they’ll later secure a physical address.
Right now, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,600 per month. A house? That’ll be a soul-crushing seven figures — for a fixer-upper. So for those who aren’t too math savvy, an Uber or Lyft driver would need to log somewhere north of 70 hours a week just to break even, without paying for utilities.
That’s why hotels like Travelodge, Comfort Inn & Suites, and Super 8 near SFO, for example, have become a bastion for transient rideshare drivers as well. Just ask front-desk agents, as I did — four in total. One estimated that over a quarter of the hotels are occupied by rideshare drivers seeking shelter for the next before they begin their next shift. The financial logic here: by booking hotels and hostels near surging, bustling markets, drivers will be able to make up for the initial investment—and more. In the process, drivers will also gain an actual mattress to sprawl on top of after a long day’s work.
This, too, is yet another reason why proposals for approved overnight parking lots are gaining popularity in SF and around the Bay Area, offering secure, legally sound areas in which people can find nighttime respite within the confines of their cars. San Francisco supervisors Afsha Safai and Vallie Brown are spearheading the pilot program, beginning with one Upper Yards site location at 482 Geneva Avenue near the Balboa Park BART station. Ideally, each of these designated lots would include 30-plus spots designated for homeless residents in which they could safely sleep in their vehicles overnight.
But as benevolent as such well-intended proposals are, they merely represent a three-inch bandage over a gaping bullet wound. They don’t address the gig economy’s financial shortcomings, particularly in relation to millennials and Gen-Zers; they don’t address the grossly inflated costs of living in the Bay Area and other national metros; they don’t, in the end, fasten down any sort of hope for a more stable, traditional way of life that so many of these car-inhabiting rideshare drivers yearn for.
“I don’t see myself doing this forever, because if I picture myself doing this for a few more years, I’ll go crazy,” my Brazilian source told me in closing, right before having to cut our call short to pick up a new passenger from SFO. “I just want a place to call home, a place where I can shower, sleep, and use the restroom.”