Before the Outside Lands festival was even over, numerous articles started popping up on sites like ValleyWag, SF Weekly and SFist about ridiculously high fares due to Uber’s surge pricing. Each night after the event let out surge pricing got up to 5 times the normal rate. Online, everybody freaked out over a couple pics of some pretty high fares. Uber was portrayed as the bad guy, ripping off decent festivalgoers that just wanted to get home.
Yeah, it’s easy to hate on Uber. And plenty of commenters lambasted the spoiled passengers who couldn’t be bothered to take public transportation. Or walk. Or ride a bike. Though if they’d seen the mobs around the bus stops on Geary, they might have held back on some of that criticism. Those poor saps weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Still, is it better to be a sucker? No. But another factor that’s being overlooked in all this brouhaha is that these high fares were not just the direct result of surge pricing. They are also a consequence of drivers coming into the city to work the event and not knowing how to navigate the streets.
I know that drivers are supposed to stick up for fellow drivers, but if fares are surging even two times the normal rate, do you want somebody behind the wheel who knows how to get you where you’re going in the most efficient, least expensive way possible or a driver who would be completely lost without Waze or Google Maps?
I don’t deny that navigation apps can be useful. But they can only help so much during major traffic jams. Even an app like Waze that updates itself in real time with user input is dependent on the users’ familiarity with the streets they are driving. You don’t need an app to tell you traffic sucks when you can just look outside your window. There are many options when driving through a city. Not just the fastest and the shortest. Experienced drivers know alternate routes and how to avoid traffic from driving the streets regularly.
I had several passengers over the weekend tell me they’d gotten the runaround from out-of-town drivers. One guy told me his previous driver didn’t even know how to get to Golden Gate Park! He tried to direct her but she insisted on using navigation, so they had to find an address that corresponded with the park. Locals know when their drivers are lost, but what about all those thousands of passengers who flew into San Francisco for Outside Lands? They had no clue where they were going and were just as disoriented as their drivers.
In the example above, a driver used the Great Hwy and Sloat to get from the Richmond to Castro/Upper Market. That driver turned a four mile ride into eleven miles. Even if they were trying to avoid traffic, there’s no reason to go that far out of your way. Personally, I’d go through Laurel Heights, Nopa or Anza Vista. I drove all over those areas during Outside Lands and the streets were not that congested. Sure, there are more stop signs on side streets. But is it better to stop and drive or stop and stop and go a few feet then stop again, over and over, all the way out of the Richmond District? Geary, Lincoln, Fulton and the other major boulevards were a sea of red lights. During an event of this caliber, avoiding the major streets and using alternate routes is a no-brainer. But, hey, if drivers are in the city just to squeeze as much out of price surging as possible, then why bother making the rides shorter?
While those drivers taking home hundreds of dollars from this event should be ashamed of themselves if those fares were jacked up due to their own ineptitude as a driver, another important part of the story left out of these articles about price surging is that these inflated fares during Outside Lands were from rides in UberBlack towncars or UberXL SUVs.
Face it: if you want to feel money, you have to pay the price.
But many UberX drivers saw fares in the $90 range. From what I witnessed during the event, these drivers must have been picking up passengers deep in the mess of traffic, during the highest surges. And like UberBlack and UberXL users, those passengers deserve to pay more because they know they’re requesting a car at the worst possible moment. The app tells them as much. It’s stupid for them to complain. The savvy rideshare users were the ones who walked out of the congestion, waited for the surge to go down, or just used Lyft, whose Prime Time never seemed to go past 75%.
I had one group of passengers walk towards me as I drove to their location, making it easier to pick them up without getting too caught up in the traffic near the festival entrance/exit, where the madness had to have been nuts. I have no idea what it was like there because I never ventured close enough. I’m sure it was a clusterfuck of towncars, Uber sedans and mustachioed Lyft cars. Only inexperienced and greedy drivers would attempt to participate in a feeding frenzy like that.
The Outside Lands Gambit
I don’t usually deal with the hassle of festivals in the city, but I thought I’d give Outside Lands a chance. I did Friday and Saturday. I started in the early afternoon and drove until one AM. Financially, it was the worst weekend I’ve had in a while. Even though I never once got stuck in traffic, despite circumventing other rideshare drivers maneuvering the streets like chickens with their heads cut off, the most expensive ride I gave was $37. From mid-Richmond to North Beach.
While the festival was in full-swing, there was very little business in the city. It was only when the festival let out that the requests started coming in. I was in the Richmond during the infamous 5x surge. I waited five minutes with the Uber app open, but I got no requests. I’ve adhered to a simple rule since I started driving for both platforms. If I wait longer than five minutes for a request with only one app open, I turn on the other and take the first request one I get. Seconds after turning on Lyft, I got a request. I drove to the location but nobody was there looking for me. I clicked the “arrive” notification but the app told me I wasn’t at the location. I zoomed in on the map. My GPS blue dot was on top of the passenger icon. I could not have gotten any closer to the pinged location. I clicked arrive again. Still, the app told me I wasn’t there. I started getting service problem alerts. I tried calling the passenger. The app crashed. I opened it back up and canceled the request. As soon I did, I got another request. I tried to accept it but the app kept telling me to wait. I tried to get out of driver mode but the app wouldn’t let me. Another request came in for a location on the other side of the park. There was no way I could get there in a reasonable time so I let it time out and tried to go out of driver mode again. The app still wouldn’t cooperate. So I shut off my phone, did a hard restart and left the area. Drove north, away from the park. After restarting my phone, I opened the app and a request was already coming in. On Lake and 25th. I accepted it and was able to complete the $27.00 ride.
That was about all I could take of Outside Lands for one day.
The second night, during what I thought was a 3x surge, I drove a couple from mid-Richmond to Japantown. I easily avoided traffic jams, I got them to their hotel quickly with a few suggestions for where to grab a decent breakfast in the morning. Turned out the surge was actually 1.25x and the fare was just $13.07.
I spent the rest of the night moving passengers around downtown and the Mission. I’m sure I could have made more money if I’d kept going back to the Richmond or Sunset districts, but the potential higher fares just weren’t worth the headache.
Chasing The Surge
I’ve always been ambivalent about Uber’s surge pricing and Lyft’s prime time. I get the concept of supply and demand, but I’d much rather let the passenger decide how much my service is worth during busy times with a tip. Most drivers chase the surge. There are driver groups on Facebook devoted to posting screengrabs of high-ticket fares during price surges. Posters click “like” and make comments like, “Lucky you!” or “I wish I weren’t already in bed or I’d get in my car right now!”
Surge pricing forces generosity from people who would otherwise not give you a penny more than what is required. And since Uber discourages tipping, that amount is whatever comes up on the app. Surge pricing is the only time drivers get more than what the app determines. So it’s no wonder they revel in it and respond to high fares like they just won the lottery.
While Lyft at least has the option to tip in the app, Uber is sticking to the no-tip rule. They even discourage drivers from accepting cash tips when passengers offer them. There are even some drivers who follow that rule.
Regardless of what Travis Kalanick thinks is a better model for transportation, driving is a service-based task. Only assholes stiff service workers on tips. So who cares if they have to pay more—or a LOT more—when demand is high? Doesn’t the extra money make up for all the times they didn’t have to pay extra for the luxury of being driven around town, oftentimes receiving water and snacks along the way?
Perhaps, but telling riders they don’t have to tip and then forcing them to tip when it’s busy is ass backwards. Why did Uber take tipping out of the equation anyway? It’s not like we’re getting paid more than taxi drivers. You wouldn’t stiff a cab driver on a tip, so why do it to Uber and Lyft drivers?
The no-tip rule is an absurd aspect of Uber’s business model. It may seem like a good idea to the consumer during normal times, but what about when they’re looking at a $400 dollar fare? Tossing a few extra bucks to your driver doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.