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Uber Charges Five Times Normal Amount During Tuesday's Nasty Commute

By  Mina Bloom and Tanveer Ali | November 18, 2014 1:36pm 

 Drivers sit in traffic on the Kennedy Expy.
Drivers sit in traffic on the Kennedy Expy.
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Scott Olson/Getty Images

CHICAGO — Like many Chicagoans Tuesday morning, Tony Boylan watched buses jam-packed with commuters whiz by him, so he searched for an alternative way to get to work — only to find that Uber was charging five times the normal amount.

Boylan and many Chicago commuters fell victim to the rideshare service's notorious "surge pricing," which hikes up the cost per ride when demand is high.

And on Tuesday morning, demand was high. A bus caught fire on Lake Shore Drive, ensnaring traffic. In an unrelated incident, a former elementary school being redeveloped into condos also burned, halting Brown and Purple Line trains during the morning rush hour.

"It felt like one of those mornings of a blizzard where there's three times the normal amount of people at a bus stop," said Boylan, 49, who works as a public relations consultant in River West.

"I looked at an Uber. It was 4.9 times the [usual] pricing," he said.

Boylan, who lives in Lincoln Park, said it would've cost him $50 or $60 to get to work if he chose to use Uber. He ended up walking six blocks to the LaSalle Street bus and taking the bus to Wacker Drive, where he hailed a cab.

"Even if I was in a fire and I needed to get to the emergency room, I would not pay that," Boylan said.

Lizzie Schiffman Tufano says the surge pricing is an incentive to get drivers on the road:

Surge pricing aims to incentivize Uber drivers to flood crowded areas with service when demand spikes.

"It's not fun to pay a surge price and I recognize that," said Chris Taylor, general manager of Uber Chicago. "We don't want to see it happen, but when it does happen, it should then bring more drivers out there."

Uber starting messaging its drivers Monday night warning them that there might be high demand Tuesday because of the cold weather, Taylor said, who added that they are constantly "improving" and "tweaking" the algorithm that determines if fares should be elevated.

Paula Matthews of Edgewater, who has driven for both Uber and Lyft for over a year, said she was out working when the surge went into effect Tuesday morning, and was disappointed to learn she was heading in the wrong direction.

“I got stuck taking my first passenger of the day to the airport. While there was the surge, I lost all the money that comes with it."

Usually when there’s a surge — either because of bad weather or big transportation issues — Matthews tries to get to the areas where Uber rates are higher. Neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Lincoln Park are regularly areas where surge pricing goes into effect, Matthews said.

“Passengers have to decide whether they want to take their chances hailing a cab from the street or pay the extra in surge prices with Uber,” Matthews said.

For Boylan, the decision was an easy one.

Uber's app "does give you a warning that tells you about the increase," Boylan said. An infrequent user who hails Uber cars only for emergencies said he typically sees surge alerts warning that prices are, at most, doubled.

When he saw the "4.9x" alert this morning, "I hit dismiss at that point," he said.

Meanwhile Tuesday, taxi drivers and state Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Chicago) held a news conference lobbying to override the recent veto of a bill that would have tightened regulations on ride-sharing services like Uber.

Zalewski's proposed bills, which are more restrictive than the ordinance passed by City Council in May, would provide "critical transportation protection for thousands of riders and drivers throughout Illinois," Will McNary, co-director of Citizen Action/Illinois, said at the news conference.

He added that the bills also set standards for "surge pricing" to prevent ride-sharing companies from soaking riders with higher rates at peak periods.

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