Uber Prices Surging All Day in Poor, Minority Neighborhoods with COVID-Cut Transit


Uber Surge Price Map Show’s DC Area Demand for Commuting, Despite COVID Conditions

The Washington region’s least walkable areas — with disproportionally high populations of low income and BIPOC people are suffering from a lack of plentiful transit and non-car transportation services. That’s according to maps of Uber surge prices shown to Street Justice by a long-time and reliable source who drives for the ride-hail company. The driver, who lives in Maryland and has driven for Uber for one year, explained that the magnitude of the fare premiums and the hours they were in effect was unusual.

Uber charges surge prices to passengers as an excise tax on top of the base fare of a ride. It’s a blunt instrument creating temporarily higher earnings for drivers as a way to entice the ride suppliers into geographic areas where there’s more demand for trips than the supply of free drivers. Uber/Lyft/Via all specialize in these “gamified” interventions into the market for rides. [Takes note down in the Street Justice ideas notebook for a story that explains all the different games the apps use to mess with drivers and riders.] The important thing to know is that these surge prices can make “affordable” Uber rides on par with transit fares into unaffordable luxuries.

The public policy and social justice problem is that those luxury expense prices are being paid in the DC area now by residents who need Uber for essential trips. Our driver source shared several pictures of surge maps as shown in the driver app. These maps, taken on a weekday mid-morning this past week, show a high surge fee in Northeast and Southeast DC — plus SW in Ward 8. Also, Prince George’s County inside the Beltway all around DC and eastern Montgomery County.

These are the working class and predominantly Black suburbs of Washington, DC. The surging areas inside the District are essentially perfect superimposition of maps of COVID-19 deaths, tree cover, traffic deaths, violent crime, and low car ownership (due to low income, rather than lifestyle). Street Justice notes especially that our northern parts of Ward 5 and north Ward 4 are included in these neighborhoods.

Street Justice asked our driver source to show a surge map including Northern Virginia. The header image above shows surging in the western edges of the City of Alexandria and into southern Fairfax County. That’s a region of unworkable, car-driven suburbs and low-density land use. There are long-term studies and capital project plans to improve transit service in the Route 1 corridor there. But, the current situation is car ownership/access as table stakes for societal participation. A second screenshot below shows no surge in NoVA a few hours later on a weekday.

Uber surge prices are multiples of base fares and adjust to an algorithm that responds to live data on supply and demand in the app. It’s complicated on the rider side, but looking at the driver side in these screenshots shows huge additional fees on even short rides. The lowest-income residents in the region — who maybe don’t have long distances to commute — will have to pay the most if they can’t access transit or walk/bike commuting. This is a common story in Prince George’s County: commutes of only a few miles but that trip involves 2-3 state highways with 6-8 lanes each at 55 mph prevailing speeds.

“If you want to make money, Ward 7/8 is always surging,” the source wrote. “It's just normal folks just trying to get to work.” They just started driving again after spending recent times in Maryland at home staying safe from COVID. “It's never been like this before. Is transit not running fully?” Street Justice explained that WMATA, TheBus, RideOn, and DC’s Circulator have not returned to even weekend-levels of service after COVID cuts.

“It's people just trying to get to work and Uber is probably the only option. And that's the entire problem with transit systems here,” the source continued. “This is a very bad situation for less affluent folks in the DMV.” They said that these weekday surges, all day long and with premiums that high, are not normal.

Those surge fees are used as a market mechanism for Uber to lower wait times and — the company says — better serve its customers. But, those fees are also the taxes poor people in the DC area pay for needing to get to work, not having a high enough income to access a car, and not having the time deal with the unacceptably long wait times of unwalkable land-use in affordable neighborhoods and already poor transit service cut to the bone by DC-area transit agencies. “One passenger told me a public transit commute for her is 2 hours,” said our driver source.