As North Texans try to get back to the way things were before COVID — or at least something resembling it — residents have noticed that a key transportation feature from yesteryear is missing.
Where have all the cheap fares and easy access to Uber and Lyft gone?
“It does seem like it takes longer to get a ride, and it costs more, too,” Haslet resident Melissa Hollingsworth, 32, said as she and a friend stepped out of an Uber on a recent Friday night outside Magnolia Motor Lounge in Fort Worth’s popular West 7th area.
On this evening, Hollingsworth had to wait about 10 minutes for her ride to pick her up in Haslet, and the 15-mile trip cost about $20. But Hollingsworth, a regular Uber customer, said it can cost twice that much, and take twice as long to get a driver to respond, if her destination is a less popular area.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently took a 9-mile trip at about 10 a.m. on a weekday, from a Hurst car dealership to downtown Fort Worth. An Uber driver responded in 12 minutes — the Uber app explained that the driver was finishing a drop-off elsewhere in Tarrant County — and with a $5 tip the trip cost $22.85.
Using Lyft, the Star-Telegram took the same trip in reverse around noon on the same weekday. The Lyft driver arrived in downtown Fort Worth after an eight-minute wait, and the trip back to the Hurst car dealership cost $20.73.
“Uber used to come right away, but now sometimes it takes 20 minutes,” another area resident, Allison Ball, 17, of west Fort Worth, said as she walked the West 7th area with friends on a weekend evening.
Lack of Uber, Lyft drivers
Many who follow the ride-sharing industry say the problem is a lack of Uber and Lyft drivers. Many drivers filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic shutdown, and later found jobs in other fields as the economy re-opened.
Whether the shared economy will return to pre-pandemic levels and bring back enough drivers to operate Uber and Lyft at 2019 levels is up for debate.
Some industry observers warn that many service providers in the shared economy — especially those backed by venture capital investors — dramatically discounted their fares from 2013-2020 as a way to gain market share. But many of those services, including Uber and Lyft, are now focused on making profits, meaning the days of discounted rides for customers are over.
Uber and Lyft are no longer start-ups, and are now both publicly traded companies.
Higher Uber fares ‘here to stay’
“Yes, I think higher rates are here to stay,” Christopher Elliott, an Arizona-based consumer advocate who specializes in travel issues, said an an email. Elliott reported on his blog that one Uber customer recently paid $127 for a fare that previously cost $42.
“They (price increases) are part of the long-term business plans for the major ride-sharing companies,” Elliott said.
But others say the problem is already fixing itself, as those companies offer incentives to get more drivers behind the wheel.
“We’re seeing big increases in demand for rides, as vaccines roll out and people start moving again,” Lyft company officials said in an emailed statement. “We’re working to meet demand, including providing incentives to drivers, who are busier and earning more than they were even before the pandemic.”
There are reasons to be encouraged, a Lyft spokesperson said. In May, the number of drivers applying to work with Lyft and going through background checks was up 25% compared to three months earlier.
Uber officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about their company’s efforts in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Uber is spending $250 million recruiting drivers, said Harry Campbell, founder of the Rideshare Guy industry blog.
“It’s going to take some time before things get back to normal but I do think eventually the reliability that customers have come to know and love about ride-hail services will return,” Campbell said in an email. “But this summer will be a bit bumpy. Passengers are still opening up the Uber app for the first time in a year and a half, and (are) surprised by the high prices and long waits on rideshare services.”
Delivering food instead of people
Many former Uber drivers have switched to delivering to-go meals for companies such as Uber Eats and DoorDash.
Elijah Bilel of Grand Prairie says he drives for both Uber and Lyft, and also delivers food for various providers. He says that although the pay generally is a bit lower with food delivery, many drivers prefer delivery services because they aren’t yet comfortable having strangers in their car.
Bilel, who contributes to the Rideshare Guy blog with content from the Dallas-Fort Worth region, said both Uber and Lyft are offering drivers incentives to come back to work. One recent incentive required a driver to accept just three rides in a week for a $100 bonus.
“It’s hard to say if the time frame will be this summer, but I do think things will eventually start to normalize, especially as unemployment benefits run out and we’re going to see an increase in drivers returning to ride-share,” Bilel said in a phone interview.
Another Uber driver, who identified herself as Dominique, said she has stuck mostly with Uber Eats deliveries for the past two years, but in the past two months has begun ferrying passengers for Uber because of the incentives.
“They pay an $18 bonus just to work at the airport,” she said.
As a result of the incentives to boost driver pay, customers are routinely being asked to pay “surge pricing” — a phenomena that used to occur only after major concerts, sports and other large events. Surge pricing occurs when the cost of getting a ride goes up because of the high demand for rides — and the additional cost is passed on to the customers.
The lack of drivers also is causing communication problems for both Uber and Lyft riders, as well as drivers.
Chad Bauer of Burleson, who drives for Lyft, said he is becoming frustrated that some customers request a ride only to cancel before he can get there. He suspects that the customers have found a better deal, probably on Uber or a similar ride-sharing app.
And, Bauer said, it’s true that some ride-sharing drivers also are guilty of canceling trips. Drivers sometimes will initially agree to pick up a fare, only to change their mind minutes later when they realize the trip isn’t going to have a big financial payoff.
Bauer said he is confident that the situation will cool off, once Uber and Lyft have more drivers on board to meet demand.
“Yesterday, I took a lady to work,” Bauer said. “She was frustrated because she had been trying to get a ride, but they (several other Lyft drivers) had canceled on her, and she was 30 minutes late.”