I occasionally find myself in an Uber or Lyft. I like to hear about the lives of the people who do the driving. They’re overwhelmingly from the distant suburbs and drive in to the city to collect fares. An hour away is the most typical distance. I ask why they don’t just drive near where they live. The numbers don’t add up. Not enough volume. The distances are too far and the empty round trips burn up miles with no income. And the price they get for each trip is geographically sensitive based on supply and demand. A driver can pick up and drop off fares continuously all day and all night in the city at a higher rate than a few scattered fares in the suburbs with a lower rate. Commuting in to town is wildly more profitable.
In Denver I chatted with a 30-ish woman driver about her situation. She left West Virginia looking for work. She rents an apartment in Colorado Springs an hour away since rents are half what they are in Denver. This arrangement is what economists call geospatial arbitrage. Her commute in and out of the city is paid for with airport fares from suburbia. She earns 90% of her income from Lyft and Uber. She said she’s saving up to buy a house back in Appalachia. She had a pleasant hippy vibe. She just got her certificate for therapeutic massage and a table at a work share space in a trendy neighborhood. She talked about how she liked Colorado because people ask if she enjoys her work and what she’s striving to achieve in her personal growth. No one back home in West Virginia ever asks about happiness. They focus more specifically on bread and butter and keeping warm and dry. But it’s home and West Virginia is beautiful and the kind of place where you can buy a house on the cheap and be close to your people. She’ll never buy a home in Denver. Never.