As vaccinations embolden more people to frequent bars, restaurants, and wherever else they liked to go before the coronavirus shut everything down, demand for ridesharing is outstripping the number of Uber and Lyft drivers on the road. Drivers left the platforms in droves earlier in the pandemic as lockdown orders led up to 94 percent of riders to stop using such services. The risk of catching the coronavirus from passengers also led drivers to stay at home or pursue somewhat safer gig-economy jobs like food delivery. The current imbalance between supply and demand is leading to noticeably higher prices and longer wait times as Uber and Lyft struggle to get drivers to come back. That’s why there are so many jaw-dropping viral anecdotes, like the ride from Midtown Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport that cost more than a flight from New York City to San Francisco.
To erase this sticker shock, ridesharing companies are coughing up bucketloads of money in an attempt to lure more drivers back onto their platforms. Uber announced in April that it would spend $250 million in a matter of months as part of a one-time “stimulus” package, which includes incentives like guaranteeing sums of well over $1,000 for completing a certain number of trips. Lyft is spending $100 million in similar effort. However, according to reporting from the New York Times, these sorts of bonuses aren’t attracting drivers as effectively as they were before the pandemic, partly because gig workers are still concerned about infection. Government stimulus checks have also lessened the financial pressure on drivers who might otherwise be forced to start taking passengers again even despite their worries about getting sick. Uber disclosed in its May earning report that 3.5 million active workers are using its platforms, which is a 22 percent drop from last year. For riders, this translates to more expensive trips. Research cited by the Times indicates that ride prices in April were 40 percent higher compared to 2020. Surge pricing has also drawn the relatively few drivers currently out on the road to areas where many people are seeking rides, resulting in fare spikes of 50 percent or more.
I wanted to understand how Uber drivers are handling the late-spring rush, and spoke to three this week. They were all aware of the incentives, but said they don’t seem to be helping their bottom lines all that much, and that it’s becoming more and more untenable for them to keep using the platform.
Trisha Hunt, a driver in Davenport, Iowa, says that her fares actually seemed to have decreased over the last few months. “When I first started doing Uber, I would average about $15 an hour, and lately I’m lucky to make minimum wage after gas prices, which in my state is $7.25 an hour,” Hunt said, who added that she hasn’t been receiving more money for surges, though customer service told her that it might be the result of a platform glitch. Riders have been complaining to her that they sometimes have to wait 45 minutes to get picked up, and she’s had a lot of repeat customers, likely due to the lack of drivers. Being one of the few drivers in the area, she’s been getting a lot of requests to go back and forth between a few different cities that are 10 to 15 miles away from each other. “Consider the gas involved in that and the pay diminishes, although I do drive a manual which gets better gas mileage than most,” Hunt said. She’s been relying on mostly doing trips, though, as she recently broke her leg and can’t do food deliveries.
Mike C., a driver in Albany, New York, who declined to provide his last name for fear of being blackballed by Uber, has similarly run into issues with surge pricing and says he’s been making a little bit less than he was at the beginning of the pandemic. While he’s been getting plenty of notifications about areas with surges, Mike says that he has a hard time actually finding riders at those prices once he gets there. In addition, the bonuses for completing a certain number of rides aren’t what they used to be, at least for him in Albany. “During COVID I do remember having a couple weeks that were pretty high, but that was like $450 I think for 100 rides,” he said. “My current promotion is $310 for 80 rides.” His attempts to capitalize on businesses reopening also haven’t gone so smoothly. New York State ended its 12 a.m. curfew for indoor dining at bars and restaurants on Monday, so Mike thought it would be worthwhile to venture out to the nightlife area on Tuesday night for people staying out late. In the end, he only reported making about $50.
Eliot Leisure, a driver in Monterey, California, stopped taking passengers in February 2020 for fear of catching the virus and because there was a steep decline in business due to shelter-in-place orders. Leisure instead switched to just doing food deliveries for Uber Eats and DoorDash. He had been seeing fewer and fewer surge prices while driving for Uber X, the standard service for parties of up to four people, while bonuses for food delivery were staying fairly stable. “All of Uber’s surges are gone, and sometimes during dinner hours there will be a 1.1x multiplier for Uber Eats, and DoorDash does a $3 bonus per trip after midnight around here,” he said. He’s heard about the current cash bonus and surge incentives that Uber is rolling out, but it isn’t enough to bring him back. Strangely, he keeps getting a big banner whenever he opens the app promising thousands of dollars if he gets a friend who quit driving passengers to sign up again, which he said is “ridiculous, because I used to do Uber X, why don’t they just offer that to me? I don’t understand it.”
Leisure also attributed some of his reluctance to pick up riders to Uber and other gig economy companies’ $200 million campaign to pass Prop 22 in November, which classified drivers as contractors rather than employees entitled to benefits. “At this point I’m kind of fed up with Uber’s various shenanigans,” he said. “The drivers somehow always manage to get the short end of the stick. Prop 22 is perfect example of that.”