Expect an Uber Nightmare in Philadelphia for the Pope

And you thought the surge rates were high before.

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If you’ve ever tried to use UberX during bad weather or on a busy weekend night — or, even worse, during bad weather on a busy weekend night — you know that the normally cheaper-than-a-cab transport option can become seriously and prohibitively expensive. Well, based on what we’re hearing from UberX drivers around town, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

In case you’re not familiar with Uber’s surge pricing model, it works like this: When demand is high and supply is low, rates go up, and you’re notified of the increased rate before you accept the ride.

Uber has explained that the idea behind the surge pricing is to get drivers who aren’t working onto the street, enticing them with more money at a time when there are a lot of people who need rides and not enough working drivers to provide them. The surge rate might be nominal, like 1.5 times the normal rate, but we’ve seen it regularly hit the 2 to 4 range, and we’ve heard that it sometimes hits 8 times the normal rate.

Let’s say you and four of your friends want to hop a half mile from one bar to another on a rainy Saturday night, so you summon an Uber SUV to accommodate the group. Normally, the minimum fare for an Uber SUV is $25. But because it’s pouring and busy, the surge rate is at 3. What that means is that the minimum ride becomes $75. Painful math.

And that’s what we’re predicting for the pope’s visit. But worse.

Over the last month, we’ve asked dozens of UberX drivers about their plans for the pope weekend, and not one of them — not a single one — said they had committed to working it. In fact, almost every one had resolved to not work, and as we’ve gotten closer to the pontiff’s arrival and as security and logistical plans have become clearer, each and every driver we’ve spoken with has said some version of “I wouldn’t be caught dead in Philadelphia this weekend.”

“Uber keeps telling us that we can make a lot of money this weekend,” said one driver this week, asking us not to use his name. “But this is just going to be one huge headache. You’ve got all these roads closed. I don’t understand where I can go and where I can’t go. And you’re going to have a ton of people here from out of town who have absolutely no idea where they are going and who don’t understand you when you tell them that you can only get eight blocks away from where they want to go. That’s a lot of 1-star ratings.” (At the close of an Uber trip, you can rate the driver on your phone.)

No one knows quite how many people are going to flood into the city to catch a glimpse of the pope this weekend, but early estimates topped out at two million. That’s probably a slightly ridiculous number, but we know for a fact that crowds are going to be huge and unprecedented. With demand so high, Uber rates were already likely to surge, but with fewer drivers than normal, the rates could become apocalyptic.

Just how high could that surge rate go during the pope’s visit? Reportedly, there is no maximum surge rate, except during states of emergency.

Uber spokesperson Taylor Bennett says that with some 12,000 Uber drivers in the region, the sample of Uber drivers we spoke with is not representative of the overall group. We’ll just have to agree to disagree about that. And Bennett says he can’t say just how expensive Uber might get this weekend in Philadelphia.

“Because surge pricing is a result of real-time supply and demand, we can’t predict whether it will and to what level it may be in effect,” says Bennett. “[We] do expect a large influx of riders and will do our best to meet that demand and be as reliable as possible.”

Meanwhile, regular old cabs are expected to be out in full force during the pope weekend, and cabs aren’t allowed to raise their rates. (Keep in mind that UberX isn’t even allowed to operate here, but that doesn’t stop them.) The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which oversees cabs and which has been going after UberX since its arrival here, promises us that the agency’s enforcement agents will be out all weekend monitoring both services.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.