Snow joke — Uber and Lyft take Philly area users for rides costing up to six times normal

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Citing "higher demand," a shared Uber ride from Market East to the Airport was going for $33.77 on Wednesday afternoon, a econo private Uber journey for $52.37, $35 would have gotten you there (including tip) in a licensed cab.

A buck a block. Twelve dollars a mile. Ten minutes of calm, warm transport for $30. Posted markups of “3.8X normal.”

These were just some of the wackadoo deals that morning commuters were facing Wednesday, as they tried to book an Uber or Lyft ride to get them to work on time.

Conspiracy theories loomed large among the discontent. The streets and sidewalks in Fishtown, for instance, had not been cleaned well, parking was hard to find, and the trains are super-crowded. A trip that normally cost $2.70 in an Uber pool ride (shared vehicle) to get two miles to work was going for – at the cheapest rate that could be found - $19. And a private Uber X  car that was usually $8.50 was $40.

Safety concerns took precedence over pricing sanity for Isabel Czech, looking out at a shoveled yet icy sidewalk in Queen Village. “I made my husband use Uber Black  in lieu of his usual walk to work at Broad and Chestnut. The ride was around $30! I’ll skip lunches out for a few days. It was worth it to me. “

Anna King, another South Philly correspondent, paid $46 in the morning for an Uber to University City. And that was a “deal” relative to the competition. “When I put in a Lyft request and asked for a quote, the quote was $64. Normally, it’s around $11.”

Variable and often volatile,  dynamic (or “surge”) pricing has always been the name of the game for the ride-sharing services, Uber spokesman Craig Ewer noted.

And while another of our venting Uber customers  was told by a driver that peak pricing periods are “the only time when he makes money,” Ewer insisted that the price quote users see on their phone apps is an automated thing,  not human exploiters taking advantage of a bad situation.

And at least users now know what the bill will be before they get in, said the company man. Until last June, the system would quote a base fare and a peak period “multiplier,” forcing  folks to do the markup math themselves.  

“Uber’s algorithms monitor demand and supply in real time all over a city,” explained Ewer. “When our systems notice an increase in wait times —because there aren’t enough drivers nearby — surge pricing automatically kicks in. This has two effects. People who are not in a hurry wait until the price falls, reducing demand.” (Even as little as five minutes can make a difference.)

“And drivers who are nearby go to that neighborhood to get the higher fares, increasing supply.” (A map on the drivers' dedicated app shows the  “red zones” where there is demand. They also receive text alerts and emails to move where the action is.)

 “As a result, the number of people wanting a ride and the number of available drivers starts to balance out, ensuring that wait times do not increase.”

Like civilian drivers, many in the Uber and Lyft motor pools were reluctant to risk life, limb, and their shiny black Chrysler 300s in the depths of the storm  Tuesday. Still, as many workers also called in snow (aka sick), demand was way down and the car-share pricing “was very inexpensive on Tuesday,” noted service user Jon Grode.  “Wednesday, it was different.”

The bad news from Uber and Lyft has sparked some users to reconsider the old-school cab companies and their often refurbished police-car rides. Hit with a Center City-to-airport quote of $102  —then five minutes later a mere $95 —  Suzanne Cross “called a cab and paid $34 with a tip. In the past we always had to wait a long time for a cab. This time, it came very quickly.”