Your UberX Driver May Be a Deranged Killer (and May Charge You Surge Pricing)

Your survival guide to Philadelphia's newest transportation option.

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Since the Philadelphia Parking Authority impounded six UberX cars last weekend and then released them, there’s been nary a peep from the PPA about the controversial car service, which now seems to be operating with impunity here. I alone have used UberX several times this week within city limits, and it seems like the “cheaper-than-taxi” alternative is here to stay. Here’s what you need to know.

Your UberX Driver May Be a Deranged Killer

UberX critics (cab union lobbyists, anti-Capitalists, anti-technologists, anti-classists, people who’ve never used the service) like to talk about how dangerous riding UberX can be. They’ll point to the handful of UberX horror stories out there, which include allegations of sexual assault and kidnapping and the tragic one about the UberX driver who struck and killed a 6-year-old girl and injured her mom and brother in San Francisco last New Year’s Eve.

We get it: Bad things might happen to you if you climb into an UberX vehicle. Your UberX driver might be a serial killer or an embedded ISIS terrorist looking for an infidel to behead. It’s possible. But if you think that your cab driver is likely to be any less deranged (or at least any less a criminal), well, you’re the one who is deranged.

All UberX drivers must submit to a background check similar to the one used by the Philadelphia Parking Authority for cab drivers. According to Uber’s website, the check goes back seven years (the maximum allowable by law) and includes all of the following:

  • County courthouse records going back 7 years for every county of residence
  • Federal courthouse records going back 7 years
  • Multi-State Criminal Database going back 7 years
  • National Sex Offender Registry screen
  • Social Security Trace (lifetime)
  • Motor Vehicle Records (historical and ongoing)

Uber says it will turn you down if your record includes a DUI, hit-and-run, fatal accident, reckless driving, violent crime, sexual offense, gun violation, resisting or evading arrest, or driving without insurance or with a suspended license. Don’t forget about the Philadelphia cab driver we spoke to recently who has felony convictions for drugs and guns.

And keep in mind that — unlike in a cab — with UberX there’s an app with GPS tracking who you are, who is picking you up, where the UberX is at any given moment. That seems like a pretty good deterrent to crime. Plus, because all UberX transactions occur on your smartphone with your registered credit card, there’s never a need to carry cash around with you or argue with a driver about the fact that you want to use your credit card.

I have taken UberX dozens of times in New York, Milwaukee, South Jersey, the Jersey Shore, Delaware County, Montgomery County and now in Philadelphia, and I have never had a single significant problem. UberX seems pretty safe to me. And it smells a whole lot better than your average cab. And there’s usually a bottle of water waiting for me in the back seat. And … you get the idea.

Your UberX Driver May Get Lost

Say what you will about Philadelphia’s cabbies, but they do generally have a good knowledge of where they are going. Before they can get a license to drive a cab in Philadelphia, they actually take a weeklong course and are tested. In my many hundreds of rides in Philadelphia taxicabs, I’ve only had a handful of drivers who didn’t have a clue when I told them where I was going.

Conversely, many UberX drivers are new to the business and don’t seem to know the city very well, based on my experience and what I’ve heard from other passengers. My hunch is that many of these UberX drivers are people who live in the suburbs and who have spent very little time downtown.

Earlier this week, I asked a driver to turn onto Broad Street. We were a couple of blocks away. He missed Broad, and when I brought it up to him, he seemed very confused. Something told me that he was thinking in his head, Oh, he means 14th Street.

Local music impresario Sean Agnew says that when a friend of his tried to take UberX from Center City to Fishtown last weekend, the driver had no idea where Fishtown was and wound up taking the Ben Franklin Bridge into New Jersey.

Apparently UberX drivers don’t always know how to use their navigation.

UberX Is Usually Cheaper

Whereas their luxury Uber Black service is more expensive than a cab, Uber bills UberX as a “cheaper-than-taxi” alternative. And generally speaking, that’s true.

On Thursday, I took UberX three times, and each time, it was less expensive than a taxi would have been. What would have been a $20 cab ride (plus tip) ran me just over $17, and there’s no tipping. Clean, friendly, convenient and cheaper. A no brainer, right?

Well, you should know that there are some circumstances where UberX won’t be cheaper than a taxi.

In Atlantic City, where I used UberX just last weekend, the cabs run on meters but those meters max out at $13, assuming you stay within the boundaries of Atlantic City. (Once you cross into Brigantine to the north, Ventnor to the south or the abyss to the west, all bets are off.)

UberX has no such limitation. A few weeks ago, I took UberX from Kingston Avenue on the south end of Atlantic City to Harrah’s on the Marina, and the tab came to more than $16. Let’s say you get stuck in traffic. In a cab, the meter still freezes at $13. In UberX, the bill keeps ticking up and up. That said, I’m happy to pay a little extra for the convenience.

And there’s one other time when UberX can be not just more expensive but much more expensive than a taxi, and that is when …

UberX Is Doing Surge Pricing

The horror. The horror.

On Thursday night, I went to summon an UberX, and I saw the dreaded little lightning bolt icon next to UberX on my phone. And I knew what that meant: UberX has instituted surge pricing.

uberx-philadelphia-uber-surge-pricingIf you’re not familiar with surge pricing, it is Uber’s extremely controversial practice of increasing prices when their algorithm tells them to do so. Essentially, what the company has said is that there are too many riders and not enough drivers on the street, so they boost the price up to get more drivers to sign on.

If it’s Thursday night at 10 p.m. and you’re an UberX driver sitting in front of the Thursday Night Football game at home, maybe you don’t feel like going to work. (UberX drivers work when they want to.) But, if there are a lot of people looking for cars and, as a result, the company declares that surge pricing is in effect, you know that you’re going to make more money, and so you might be more likely to sign on.

I’ve mostly seen Uber surge pricing rear its ugly head during severe weather, and, frankly, when I really needed to get from Ardmore to Manayunk during a torrential rainstorm last year, I can’t say that I argued much with the surge pricing. But on Thursday night, it was crisp and clear, so I was surprised to see that Uber had set the surge pricing at 1.4-times the normal rate.

And on Friday morning in Center City, the surge was once again in effect — this time at two times the normal rate. I’ve seen Uber (not UberX) surge as high as four times the normal rate, and there have reportedly been cases where Uber’s surge rate has been eight times the normal rate.

Now, UberX has a minimum fare of $7 in Philadelphia, and you’d have to try pretty hard to take a cab in Philadelphia where the final cost — tip included — wasn’t at least $7. But when surge pricing goes into effect, you’re screwed with UberX.

At 1.4-times, that $7 minimum fare becomes a $9.40 minimum fare. And at two-times, the minimum fare is $13. (Why it’s not actually $14 at two-times or $9.80 at 1.4-times, we’re not quite sure, but hey, we’re writers, not mathematicians*.)

If you carry all of this out to its disastrous natural consequence, you could spend over $50 for a four-block ride should UberX surge to a factor of eight. And Uber Black has been known to charge riders over $100 for short rides when in surge mode. All of the complaints about Uber’s surge pricing — and there have been many — led the Better Business Bureau to recently give the company an F.

Four Minutes Is Never Four Minutes

When you request an UberX in Philadelphia, the app will tell you how far away your driver is. But you should know that this time is rarely accurate. When I have taken UberX here (and this goes for the ’burbs, too), more often than not, the UberX has taken significantly longer than the app told me it would. Just yesterday, an UberX that was supposedly four minutes away took ten minutes to pick me up. If you’re walking down the street and see a taxi, don’t call an UberX. Just hail the damn taxi. They’re not that bad. Usually.

*An Uber representative explains why the $7 rate doesn’t become $14 during 2x surge pricing. The $7 minimum fare is actually a $6 rate plus a $1 Safe Rides fee. When surge goes into effect, the $6 rate surges but the Safe Rides fee does not.

Love UberX? Hate UberX? Still don’t understand what the heck UberX is? We’d love to hear your stories. Email or post in the comments below.

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