Weaving past a cluster of parked RVs and scattered cars, Gary Branson pulled his dark-blue Prius onto a sandy median on the Great Highway and motioned at the Pacific Ocean.
“Welcome to my bedroom,” he said wryly. “Cars drive by at 50 mph a few feet away, but I do have a lovely view.”
Branson’s Prius, immaculate inside and out, is both his home and his workplace. He is an Uber driver, putting in some 60 hours a week behind the wheel to ferry passengers around San Francisco. Late at night he drives to a location where it’s legal to park, reclines the navigator seat, wraps his burly 6-foot-2-inch frame in a red plaid blanket, and tries to block out the traffic noise to get some shut-eye.
He’s figured out practical ways to cope: joining a gym for showers, neatly stowing duffels with food and clothes in his trunk, keeping most possessions in a storage unit, frequently vacuuming the car, installing two inverters to directly plug in his laptop or electric razor.
But it’s a hard life.
“It looks like I’m making it work, but I’m still a homeless person,” Branson said. He choked up when asked whether he gets lonely.
His situation underscores what critics call ride-hailing’s poverty wages and precarious nature. Although he earns about $1,200 a week (averaging $20 an hour) after Uber’s cut, work expenses such as gas, oil changes, new tires and other maintenance, traffic tickets, car payments, car insurance, cell phone bill and self-employment taxes eat a big chunk of his income.
Then there are unexpected car crises, such as when his engine and battery conked out, costing him $3,000, or when his car got rear-ended. Two weeks ago, he drove over a rough patch of road and ended up paying $1,140 to repair the front suspension.
Personal expenses add up, too — food costs a lot more when you don’t have a place to cook.
As Uber has cut rates and bonuses in recent years, Branson’s hopes of digging himself out of this hole have dwindled. He’s pinning some hopes now on California’s AB5 law, which could make drivers into employees. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it Wednesday after it passed the Senate and Assembly. Uber and Lyft, however, plan to fight reclassification in the courts and through a 2020 ballot initiative, instead seeking a new worker category called “network drivers” who are independent contractors with wage guarantees and some benefits.
Branson doesn’t think becoming an employee in itself will do much for his finances, but it’s what comes next that he’s counting on.
“Step one is us becoming employees,” he said. “Step two is that we can form a union and begin to negotiate a more reasonable percentage” of ride fares for drivers to keep. Uber’s cut is generally 30%, but he and other drivers say that’s too much — and that it sometimes takes much more.
Uber said it couldn’t comment on a specific driver’s situation and reiterated past statements about improving their lot. “Drivers are at the heart of our service — we can’t succeed without them — and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road,” Uber said.
It’s impossible to say how many ride-hailing drivers are unhoused. San Francisco used to require drivers to get business registrations using their addresses, but homeless drivers could use post office boxes or friends’ addresses. Anecdotally, the number seems small and yet still striking, considering that these are people who often work full time and still can’t afford a roof over their heads.
Veena Dubal, a UC Hastings law professor who studies ride-hailing, said she’s talked to several drivers who live in their cars.
Some are “migrant drivers,” commuting long distances from far-flung corners of California to San Francisco where driving is more lucrative. They bed down in cars, with friends or crammed into cheap motels to drive long shifts for a few days before returning home. A Chronicle investigation found that almost 10% of San Francisco drivers fit this category.
But others are like Branson: They have nowhere to go.
“They live in their cars because it’s so expensive in the Bay Area and there are so many unexpected expenses that come along with driving,” Dubal said. Many are trying to preserve their meager savings as a safety net, she said.
That’s exactly what Branson does: He tries to keep $1,000 in savings at all times because that’s the deductible on Uber’s collision insurance. He’s afraid to drive for Lyft because its $2,500 deductible is too big a risk.
With a shaved head and neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache and goatee, Branson, 48, says he looks like a Viking. He has a sardonic wit — “I might as well crack jokes while I can,” he said — and hopes to turn his gift of gab into a podcast telling “wild and wacky stories” about driving for Uber.
The son of a Baptist preacher who grew up in a small town in Iowa, Branson said he’s estranged from his family — “all a bunch of Trump voters.”
He spent nine years selling residential solar systems in Stockton. He’d previously worked as a jack-of-all-trades, a gaffer and key grip, a bartender, a waiter, a massage therapist. “I’ve led the life of a pinball, always stricken with wanderlust,” he said.
He went through a rough patch after a divorce, wrecked his credit, ran up IRS bills and burned through a lot of money helping an ill friend — whom he still partially supports.
Selling solar became less remunerative, so he started doing ride-hailing in the Central Valley as a side gig about 2½ years ago.
When his Stockton landlord evicted him, he didn’t have the resources for a new place. He stayed in campgrounds. Then he realized that driving would pay better in the Bay Area, so he came to San Francisco full time 18 months ago — and quickly realized that the barriers to getting a place here were even higher.
“Driving can be a lower-middle-class or upper-lower-class proposition as long as nothing ever goes wrong,” he said. “But life happens; things go wrong. If you’re living so close to the edge, there’s no way to handle any of life’s emergencies when they come up.”
He’s built up his savings several times only to have car catastrophes. When his car got rear-ended, it was totaled. The $6,500 insurance payout wasn’t enough for another car, so he signed up for a pricey rental through Uber and drove even more than usual to accumulate a down payment on his 2015 Prius.
The car is such a lifeline that he’s fearful of anything happening to it. He prefers to eat from drive-throughs. The one time he tried delivering through Uber Eats, he emerged from picking up an order at a McDonald’s and was terrified to find a police officer writing him a ticket with a tow truck standing by. He threw himself on the officer’s mercy and was spared.
“I have one little, itty-bitty fortress I can call a vague place of safety,” he said. “Anytime I leave my car is stressful.”