Do you tip the Uber driver?”
Pose the question to Google, and the first answer comes from the ride-hailing company’s own website: “You don’t need cash when you ride with Uber. Once you arrive at your destination, your fare is automatically charged to your credit card on file — there’s no need to tip.”
And that’s a big factor in the company’s success — passengers love the convenience of hailing a ride on their mobile phones and never having to open their wallets or calculate a gratuity.
But what do the drivers think?
“Uber tells you to decline it, and in the early stages, I did that,” said Tim, who asked that his last name not be used because he was concerned his insurance company would terminate his coverage, as has occasionally happened to ride-hailing drivers. “But if you throw me a couple bucks to put the luggage in my trunk, I’d appreciate it.”
He has some company among Uber drivers, who number 360,000 across the country and more than 10,000 in the Boston area.
Earlier this month, a group of drivers — who are independent contractors and lack many protections given to normal employees — tried to organize a strike through social media to demand the company raise pay and let passengers tip through the app, as they can with rival Lyft. (SherpaShare Inc., a San Francisco company that aggregates earnings data from ride-hailing drivers, said it noticed little impact on payments.)
In interviews, several Uber drivers said tips were rare — proffered by anywhere from less than 1 percent to 5 percent of their riders. Their counterparts at Lyft, whose app allows passengers to add an electronic tip, said they received tips 20 percent to 50 percent of the time.
“It’s usually the tourists who are doing the tipping,” said John, an Uber driver who asked that his last name not be used. “My usual comment is that it’s not necessary. However, I’m not going to get into a fight with a customer.”
A decision earlier this month by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer to raise prices and eliminate tipping at his restaurants has sparked a larger debate on tipping, which is deeply ingrained in service jobs such as waitressing and taxi driving. Some Boston restaurants are making similar moves, paying employees more than the tipped minimum wage of $3 an hour and eliminating tips.
Many passengers take Uber’s guidance at face value. But there is some confusion, with others saying they had been told by friends or seen marketing from the company that “the tip is included.” Past claims by Uber that tips are included in the fare are the subject of two class-action lawsuits filed by Boston attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan.
“It feels strange not to tip,” said Hillary Corbett, 41, a librarian who lives in Boston and used to take cabs. “The first time I used it, I was hesitant. Afterwards, I was Googling, ‘Do you tip an Uber driver?’ ”
Some passengers say their rules vary.
“I can think of a handful of times when my friend and girlfriend have been drunk and say, ‘it’s so nice not to carry cash on Uber,’ and [drivers] say, ‘Oh, you know, you can always throw a buck my way.’ More in a joking tone, not ‘you’d better tip me,’” said Greg Adams, 27, of Medford. “If it’s late at night, if there’s not surge pricing, I’ll throw them a few bucks.”
At peak demand periods, Uber raises its rates to entice more drivers onto the road, a practice known as surge pricing.
Meanwhile, taxi drivers and their managers interviewed said they still expected and tended to receive 15 percent tips on their fares. The problem for most of them is that the fares themselves are drying up as people who used to take cabs shift to ride-hailing. In the first half of 2015, Boston taxi revenue fell 25 percent from the year before, city data show. Part of the discontent could be due to the hundreds of taxi drivers who have started driving for Uber, only to find they miss their tips.
For the record: Uber says it isn’t a violation of its rules for drivers to accept tips, even if that means putting out a cup and a sign, which have been spotted in Boston.
Vlad Christoff, the chief operations officers of the Boston ride-hailing startup Fasten Inc., said his company also doesn’t offer a tipping option because passengers feel pressured and don’t know whether drivers will rate them poorly based on whether they tip.
Lyft, whose share of the ride-hailing market is estimated to be much smaller than Uber’s, has used tips and other perks as a recruiting tool to try to grow its driver base. A spokeswoman for the company said it has paid out $40 million in tips to its 100,000 drivers in its three years in business.
That’s doesn’t seem to faze Mark Bisson London, a part-time Uber driver who has a perfect five-star rating from his customers. Despite that, he’s hardly seen a tip.
“Maybe about 12 have actually offered a tip,” said Bisson London. “I’ll say, ‘Thank you ma’am, but that’s not required nor expected.’”Jack Newsham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.
Correction: Mark Bisson London’s record as an Uber driver was misstated in an earlier version of the story. He has a perfect five-star rating from his customers. Also, the photo caption incorrectly described the cup in London’s console.