There has been a whole lot of griping lately over Uber surge pricing, which basically boils down to higher rates at times if you use the popular app-based car service.
On Monday, Philebrity ran an item about a one-mile Uber ride in Philadelphia that cost $75. On Tuesday, Philly.com proclaimed “Uber’s ‘surge pricing’ hits Philadelphia” (even though it’s been here for a while), and Gawker told a terrifying tale of a $357 Uber ride in Los Angeles. The Uber surge pricing has been characterized as a “ripoff” and as “price gouging.” But it is neither.
I first experienced Uber surge pricing a couple of years ago in Washington D.C. I had attended a Saturday-night play in Georgetown and needed to get back to the house where I was staying, and so I pulled out my phone and summoned the Uber app. But when the app promptly told me that Uber surge pricing was in effect and that my ride would cost more than two times the normal rate, I decided to hail a cab instead.
Then a few months ago, I encountered Uber surge pricing again after leaving a concert in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was a rainy Saturday night and Uber surge pricing was active, according to my app. But I decided to bite the bullet instead of waiting for an unpredictable cab to show up or dealing with public transportation. The Uber ride would have normally cost me $35, but on this particular night, it cost me $70, thanks to the Uber surge pricing.
What’s common about both of those experiences is that Uber told me very clearly that surge pricing was in effect before I agreed to the transaction, before a car was dispatched. The app made me agree to the price increase before I could accept the ride.
I could have used the Uber Fare Estimator (left) that’s built into the app to calculate an estimated price based on surge pricing. Uber even prompts riders to input the “surge multiplier” that it just told you (e.g. 2x, 2.5x, 3x, etc.) once the surge hits a certain level (in Philadelphia, that threshold is 2x.), the idea being that if you’re drunk at 2 a.m, Uber wants to make sure that you’re cognizant enough to understand what you’re getting yourself into.
In other words, Uber does plenty to alert riders to the surge pricing. There are no surprises here, or at least there shouldn’t be if you’re paying attention.
The guy who paid $75 for a one-mile ride wasn’t scammed or ripped off. He was just dumb. The minimum fare in Philadelphia for an Uber SUV is $25. If 3x Uber surge pricing is in effect (as it apparently was last weekend), that minimum becomes $75, whether you are traveling one mile or one block. And that $357 L.A. ride makes perfect sense when you consider the distance (14 miles), time (50 minutes) and the surge rate of 3.75x. A normally $95.20 ride becomes $357. It’s just math.
“We are laser focused on having cars available when people need us,” says Uber spokesperson Nairi Hourdajian. “The alternative would be that we don’t have any cars available.” Uber has explained that their surge pricing is set by an algorithm that monitors supply and demand and that the increased rates encourage their drivers to get on the streets during busy nights and bad weather. Some people have called bullshit on Uber’s claim.
But none of that really matters. Uber is a luxury service. Uber is a convenience. It’s not some unalienable right. If it’s a snowy Saturday night and you really want to take a comfortable sedan or SUV driven by a professional, uniformed, not-at-all-smelly driver who will probably offer you a bottle of water and assistance in and out of the car, you’re going to have to pay for it. Or, just wait for a cab. Or take a bus. Or walk. It’s your choice.
Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.