Uber Drivers Stage a Super Bowl Slowdown

Why did ride prices surge so much on Sunday night? Was it just the game, or is a drivers' strike the main reason?

Uber drivers protest company's decision to cut UberX fares by 15% on February 1st. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Uber drivers protest company’s decision to cut UberX fares by 15% on February 1st. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

On Sunday night, Uber prices went through the roof, and probably not just because of the Super Bowl. The other factor in the surge was an organized strike by some Uber drivers as a response to company’s 15% fare cuts for the UberX service in January.

Uber ride prices are affected by supply and demand, and the price can go up by multiples of the base rate, depending on the scale of the shortage. Those higher prices are supposed to spur more drivers to get on the road when there are more customers than Uber cars. On Sunday night, surge pricing started rising up to x2.6 of the base ride fare rate in Manhattan and x1.5 in Brooklyn and Queens shortly after the Super Bowl ended, soon escalating to x3.5, and at some point reaching x3.9 in the most popular areas of New York City. In The Bronx, surge pricing ranged approximately between x1.5 and x2.2. UberX driver Farruck Khamdamov said that high surges of that scale happen only on New Year’s Eve and only in some areas in Manhattan.

“I was waiting 20 minutes for an Uber car and then had to pay $20 for a seven-minute ride,” says Uber rider Konstantinos Voudouris, who commuted from 15 Essex St. to 60 Wooster St. in lower Manhattan.

In an effort to send a message to Uber, strike organizers said hundreds of drivers spread themselves around New York neighborhoods where Uber demand is high, such as West Village, Williamsburg, midtown Manhattan, and Astoria, and requested a ride using the Uber customer app. When a driver on the job would arrive to the destination they informed them of the on-going strike and asked them to turn off their phones. Other Uber drivers, they said, kept accepting incoming requests, but immediately after accepting would tell the rider that they cannot drive them due to the strike. The result was constant surge pricing for at least an hour between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. and long waits when requesting a ride.

The following images were acquired from Uber drivers and correspond to snapshots of the Uber drivers app while the surge was in effect on Sunday night. The red dots in the first image depict surge scale around New York City and the second shows that a rider’s request from JFK requires a 72-minute wait for the next available car.

Uber surge pricing during Super Bowl Sunday

Uber surge pricing during Super Bowl Sunday

Rider's request on the drivers Uber app from JFK . The closest Uber car is 72 minutes away.

Rider’s request on the drivers Uber app from JFK . The closest Uber car is 72 minutes away.

“That’s what happens when demand is higher than supply,” said Khamdamov, who was also one of the strike leaders. “That’s the way to show that without drivers there is no Uber.”

When contacted, an Uber spokesperson said this past Sunday was their busiest Sunday ever. “We did more trips on Sunday than we ever have on Sunday since we launched. This included tens of thousands new riders using Uber, ” spokesperson said.

Uber drivers first protested the January cuts on February 1st outside Uber’s offices in Long Island City. The company claims that reduced fares will increase demand, which in turn will lead to less idle time for the drivers. However, many drivers complain that now they have to work more hours in order to make the money they used to make before the cuts, which deprives them of the flexibility that Uber seemed to offer. “If I would work the same hours now I would go home broke,” says Khamdamov, who goes to college and views Uber as a vital source of income to support his studies. An additional complaint is that the company hasn’t cut its commission fee, which remains 25 percent per ride. Khamdamov explains that drivers’ expenses include NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) insurance, car insurance, gas expenses, and toll fees—none of which are covered by the company.

Before Superbowl night, around five hundred Uber drivers gathered in Forest Park, Queens to discuss the upcoming strike, according to the organizers. “It was a smaller turn-out to what we were hoping for, but good enough for such a short notice,” said Abdoul Diallo, another Uber driver and part of the organizers’ group. The announcement for the Forest Park gathering was made on Saturday after an unsatisfactory meeting, as Khamdamov described it, of Uber drivers’ representatives with Josh Mohrer, Uber New York general manager, on Friday. The meeting occurred as a response to an open letter the drivers sent to the company on Thursday, in which they requested fares to go back to the rates prior to the 20 percent price cuts of the summer 2014, and also that the Uber commission be reduced to 20 percent. They additionally asked Uber to grant riders the option to tip their drivers and Black Car and SUV drivers to be given the choice of whether to drive for UberX fares, which now they are forced to do based on demand. By February 8, 757 drivers had signed the letter. This number is still low in relation to the minimum of 20,000 drivers that are allegedly affiliated to Uber in New York City.

Nevertheless, both Diallo and Khamdamov said they were happy with the results of Sunday’s strike. “We knew it would get busy and wanted to make a statement,” says Diallo. “There were places where the surge was so high, like lower and upper Manhattan. Even in the Bronx it was surging, and it never surges there. In the airports, LaGuardia and JFK, there were no cars available. It definitely had an affect.”

Uber on the other hand sent drivers a letter on Sunday night thanking them for breaking the record for most trips on a Sunday.

For Diallo, yesterday’s strike is not the end. He said the drivers have bigger plans to work with labor unions to fight for what he consider fairness from Uber.

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