When Stephen Rowe would drive forUber, he would try to accommodate his passengers. But the Evian Lady was just too much.
"Oh my God!" Rowe remembers the woman crying from the back seat. He had just handed her a bottle of Walgreens's generic-brand water, and she'd taken it without looking up from her phone. Now, she was sending it back."I only drink Evian!" she said.
That's when Rowe decided he'd had enough. He pulled over to a street near a shopping center outside downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, and asked the passenger to get out - which she did,slamming the door as she exited. (Rowe says he still helped her unload her luggage.)
What are drivers to do with these obnoxious patrons, these Ridezillas of the here-to-there economy?Booting them to the curb is one solution, but the less confrontational option is to give them a low rating on the Uber app once they're out of the car. Rowe did both; he gave the Evian Lady one star, wishing he could go lower.
Justice? Maybe so, in that case - though we don't know the woman's side of it, and outright ejection is arguably a hard punishment for being a water snob. But other riders worry that they've been pegged as Ridezillas without good cause. Uber's passenger ratings are supposed to reflect a pattern of behavior, and a lower score suggests you keep pulling irritating stuff, whether you know it or not.
For riders, this can be distressing. A low Uber rating is both inconvenient and inscrutable. It's the baggage they carry into every back seat.
Josh Scott can't comprehend why his Uber rating is so low. He struggles to remember any moments that would have warranted negative reviews. He has never stumbled into a ride super intoxicated. No verbal altercations or 15-minute-late arrivals. A part-time Uber driver himself, he tries to stay attuned to his behavior when he's the passenger.
And yet, somehow, his Uber rating dropped to 4.57 out of 5.
That might seem high, but it's not.Uber offers no official ratings breakdown, so riders have been left to hash out the question of which scores are good, bad and normal on Quora and Reddit and the online ride-hailing forum RideGuru. The basic consensus is this: Anything above a 4.9 is excellent, possibly even worth bragging about on Tinder; the 4.8 range is good; the 4.7 range is merely fine; the 4.6 range is nearing the borderline. Once your rating dips below 4.6, drivers start thinking you might be a little sketchy.
Scott doesn't feel sketchy. Mostly he feels confused. "The only thing I've done is just be pleasant, be on time," he said. When drivers want to talk, he's more than happy to have a conversation.
Some rating drops are easier to figure out. Diane Lee, an Amherst College student, saw her rating plummet after a bar crawl with friends in Cape Town during a summer abroad. While there were no arguments or accidents, there were seven or eight boisterous 20-somethings packed into a couple Ubers. Lee awoke the following morning to find her 4.8 rating down to a 4.2.
"I was pretty upset the whole next day," saidLee, whose rating has since crept up to 4.38. "It did feel like a moral judgment."
Briana Trujillo, who shared a dorm with Lee in Cape Town, saw her near-perfect rating dip to a 4.7. She didn't have trouble hailing rides on the Uber app afterward, but the sting lingered.
"It matters more to me than Insta likes," Trujillo said. "Insta likes are distant. This is based on your direct relationship to a person."
It's just a number. But it feels personal, a referendum on character. "If every Democratic candidate was asked their Uber rating during a debate," says Kaivan Shroff, who is based in Boston and has a good-not-great 4.70 rating, "I think people would have things to say about that the next day."
Jonathan Burns, a Florida lawyer who sits at a 4.6, has had a number of puzzled drivers ask him why his rating is so low. He doesn't use the service often and when he does, travels with his wife and kids. Burns suspects that a handful of pesky one-star reviews are disproportionately depressing his score. Over the past few years, he has turned away several rides, citing the vehicles' pungent cigarette odor.
There are online listicles detailing the annoying things riders do - eating smelly foods, vaping, not tipping well - to help riders brush up on Uber etiquette, but questions of decorum are subject to debate. How hard do you close a door for it to "slam"? Are you penalized differently for smelling like curry instead of hamburgers? What if financial constraints affect how much you can tip?
In May, Uber announced that it would begin to ban passengers with consistently low ratings. The company didn't say what the cutoff would be, but stated that it would vary by location. Riders with a "significantly below average rating" based on the local average would receive warnings, along with tips for how to boost their ratings and avoid exile. Uber reassured its customers that it expected "only a small number of riders to be ultimately impacted by ratings-based deactivations."
Still, it's an uncomfortable thought, banishing people from services based on an inscrutable social score. (The "Nosedive" episode of the Netflix show "Black Mirror" depicted a dystopian world in which access to friends, fame, and goods and services was determined by a single one-to-five rating.)
It seems even dicier when you consider how cultural bias might play into the scoring. Uber ratings are supposed to be based on a rider's behavior, but it also reflects a driver's perceptions. Drivers might interpret the behavior of passengers differently based on race, gender or ethnicity.
Rodney Hays, a Frisco, Texas, resident who drove for Uber for 18 months, never experienced the typical bratty or degenerate behavior associated with poorly rated Uber riders. He did, however, note a racial and cultural common denominator among those with low scores. They would tend to be foreigners, he said, typically from Middle Eastern or Asian countries. "If you have a jaded view," he said, "a foreign accent and tone can come across as rude."
Erika Lee, an Arizona-based reporter, says she has had the rating system weaponized against her by drivers who would hit on her, then become irritated when she'd rebuff their advances.
"I remember pretending to fall asleep because one driver kept asking me personal questions about my dating life and ethnicity," said Lee, who hovers at a 4.5.
Riders can rate back, of course. Uber drivers must maintain a 4.6 rating on their most recent 100 rides to stay active. In theory, giving drivers the ability to rate their passengers evens the power balance on any given Uber ride.
"I think having equality, having a system that's the same for riders and drivers, is fair," says Harry Campbell, a former Uber driver who lives in California and founded the Rideshare Guy blog.
If the system is fair, that doesn't mean it can always be relied upon to tell Uber drivers and riders about whom they're about to share a car with. It didn't tell Stephen Rowe everything about the Evian Lady, whom he remembers being rated 4.70 when he picked her up - before he booted her for making a snooty remark about his water selection.
Rowe's driver rating was a 4.92. The system didn't tell her everything about him, either.