New York City: Otherwise known as “surge pricing” to all but its critics, you’ll know it by the shriek of disbelief almost anyone — including the wealthy — hailing a car through application-based services like Uber and Lyft emits after being hit with a fare that on busy New Year’s Eve ran as high as nearly 10 times the norm in some cities.
And, no, it’s not just a New Year’s thing. Though social media quickly exploded with anti-Uber venom — “I’m deleting this app. Clearly the company thinks it can do whatever it wants,” fumed one South Beach, Florida, reveler to another livid over a $387 tab — bad winter weather and even Valentine’s Day means there’ll be a whole lot of shrieking going on in the months ahead.
The only perverse pleasure? Waiting to see which celebrity chimes in with the best sympathetic rant. The unofficial reigning champion: actor Seth Rogen, who sarcastically tweeted, “great way to rip off drunk people” when a woman complained on another New Year’s Eve of being soaked for $351 for a 25-minute Uber ride.
“Airlines and hotels are more expensive during busy times,” Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick has explained in defending the business model. “Uber as well.”
True. But cerebral arguments can be a tough sell in the face of such high-profile PR disasters as these:
- The New York City blizzard of 2013. Adding the hashtags “#OMG #neverforget #neveragain #real,” Jessica Seinfeld, the cookbook-writing wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, took to Instagram to freak out over her $415 Uber tab for transporting her kids to a sleepover and bar mitzvah.
- The December 2014 hostage siege in Sydney, Australia. A surge in demand — by innocents fleeing the central business district — automatically triggered fares four times the normal Uber rate.
There is some pushback, though.
With even some Uber drivers less than thrilled with the status quo — “How can it be seen as anything but opportunistic?” driver Peter Ashlock recently told a consumer tech website — New York City Hall, for example, is reported to “tacitly support” a City Council proposal that would restrict surge pricing to 100 percent of the base fare.
“All providers of ground transportation should play by the same rules, and passengers shouldn’t have to choose between reaching their destination and paying the rent,” Gary Buffo, president of the non-profit National Limousine Association (Limo.org), says of the effort.
One final caveat: Researchers at Northeastern University who studied ride-hailing service in New York and San Francisco found anecdotal evidence of “collusion” by some drivers who intentionally go offline to induce a price-jacking supply shortage. Uber, though, has pooh-poohed the findings.