A councillor, a grandma: meet Launceston’s rideshare drivers

Since June 2018, two rideshare apps have started operations in Launceston. Their peer-to-peer model – the same one as AirBnb – has changed daily life in sometimes bewildering ways. As one joke goes: “We were taught as kids to not get in strangers’ cars or meet people from the internet, and now we literally summon strangers from the internet and get in their cars.”

Each app – Uber and Australian-owned competitor, Hi Oscar – works by being downloaded onto a smartphone. You enter your bank details first up, and then you are automatically charged for the rides without money ever actually changing hands. The app knows exactly where you are because it’s connected to GPS, and you can watch the driver get closer and closer as a cute little car icon on a map.

The apps are not without controversy. They are not subject to the same regulations and fees as taxi drivers, they class drivers as independent contractors so they don’t have to pay minimum wage or benefits, and they take an arguably high cut of the ride fee – about 25 per cent for Uber and 15 per cent for Hi Oscar.

But like it or not, rideshare seems here to stay. Uber alone has an estimated 110 million worldwide users, and a proliferation of other apps have sprung up behind them. More will probably come to Launceston soon. There are dozens of rideshare drivers in the city now, and as well as delivering people from A to B, they are providing fuel for all manner of unexpected conversations, taking place between car doors as passengers are whisked to their destinations.

Here are a handful of the people you might see pulling up to your driveway the next time you summon a stranger from the internet.

Willard Zirima

Willard Zirima is an engineer, but that profession doesn’t lend itself to surprising human moments. So, when rideshare came to Launceston – despite already working full time in the mining industry – he signed himself up.

Mr Zirima has warm eyes that crinkle around the corners. He has a sprinkle of grey hair, and speaks with the rich, rhythmic timbre that accompanies an African accent. He has a manner that puts others instantly at ease – so it’s a bit of a surprise when he says socialising does not come naturally to him.

“I was born an introvert, and being born an introvert I had a fear of speaking with, meeting with people…with confidence,” he said.

“So I thought the best way to conquer my fear was just to get into it and do driving, you know? I’ve done 3500 trips and met 10,000 people. And you have to interact with those people somehow – even just to say g’day.

“The other thing is that I’ve always been a teetotaler [a non-drinker], so my friends were always calling me at 3am, saying, ‘can you pick me up?’ And I’m having the last laugh because now, those people have to pay me.”

Mr Zirima and his family moved to Tasmania from Zimbabwe about 15 years ago to work on the West Coast. It was a bit of a culture – and weather – shock, and they were never really enamored of their new home. After 10 years of managing as a migrant family in the perpetually-raining mining towns of the coast – which he politely refers to as “a nice place to visit” – the Zirimas were able to move to Launceston.

He said he knows he’ll never become a millionaire from driving, and he doesn’t need to be. Money’s not why he does it: it’s about the people.

“I started driving on Launceston Cup Day,” he said. “That was a very good introduction. They say if you want to drive you should start on that day, because you get the worst and the best experience – you get baptised.”

But what about particular passengers – are there any heart-warming or harrowing experiences he wants to share?

“What happens in the rideshare stays in the rideshare,” he laughed.

Matthew Brooks and Stacie Bulk

Matthew Brooks is a bus driver, rideshare driver, and Northern Midlands councillor.

He lives in Longford and has for the past 49 years, but he mostly drives in Launceston. He said listening to other people’s opinions – especially tourists, with their outside perspectives – gives him a unique insight into how people view the different municipalities.

“We’ve got lawyers and all sorts of people driving – everyone has a different reason,” he said. “I like the social side of it, picking up people and talking.”

Mr Brooks also runs the Uber Riders and Drivers Launceston page on Facebook. When he first started, at Uber’s launch in June 2018, there were about half a dozen drivers hitting the roads. Now, he estimates, there are more than 70.

Mr Brooks’ niece, Stacie Bulk, has also signed up. She’s a driver for Uber Eats, which launched on October 16 – meaning she transports people’s food, but not people themselves.

She runs an at-home beauty salon, starting her own business after six years in the beauty industry. She is looking to Uber Eats to help carry her over between bookings rushes.

“Sometimes there can be quiet periods, and I thought I’ll just jump on when I’ve got some gaps,” she said.

“I’ve only done three days work, and it was insane how much work I had.”

Keryn Hudson

It is no surprise that Keryn Hudson says, “I love strangers, and strangers love me.” The bubbly, gregarious grandmother has a permanently bright expression and a smile that lights up her whole, perfectly made-up face. She said she has lots to talk about with every passenger that gets into her car.

“With a young demographic, I find that they really enjoy talking about life skills,” she said. “I find that they actually listen when I’m talking to them: about, you know, having a plan for the day, always staying positive, being focused. I feel like I can be a little bit of a mentor.

“I’ve got regulars that I pick up all the time, so I’m getting to know them as people.”

She drives for five or six hours a day, organised around her other tasks – taking her five-year-old granddaughter to dance lessons, sales through a lingerie company, and other ventures.

Mrs Hudson has lived in Launceston for her entire life. But since taking up driving she is seeing more of the city than ever before – going down streets that she didn’t know existed. And Launceston being Launceston, she inevitably stumbles upon people she knows when she pulls up to take them to their destination.

“I’ve had girlfriends scream when they see me,” she said. “Like, ‘what are you doing!’ I’m like, ‘just get in the car’.”

As a female rideshare driver, Mrs Hudson is in a minority on the apps. And there are certain precautions she takes: she doesn’t pick people up after 8pm, for example. But she would encourage women not to be afraid and to get involved.

“Driving is really fun. And there are women taxi drivers, which is great – I always wave to them, even though they have no idea who I am,” she laughed.

Amal Ranawaka

Amal Ranawaka is a busy man: he’s a rideshare driver, IT professional, and cricketer.

It was cricket that brought him to the island. He played formerly for Hadspen and now bats for Beaconsfield, and has played a role in getting other top flight cricketers from his native Sri Lanka to the state.

“I don’t want to say I’m really good at cricket,” he said. “But last year we won the premiership.”

Mr Ranawaka only drives on weekends, so he won’t be much of a presence on the roads as cricket season gets underway. But outside of the summer months, he said, he enjoys it, as a counterbalance to his “good, but stressful” IT work.

“It’s a fun time, I would say,” he said.

“We meet people, we drive around … you can engage with people and you forget that you’re actually working.”

He moved to Australia 11 years ago, and Tasmania three years ago from Melbourne, where he studied for a Masters.

“So far, I enjoy my life here,” he said. “It’s a nice place to live.”

 

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