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The Uber headache catching a Lyft

Nathaniel Waugh
Nathaniel Waugh
Opinion
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I remember when Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) first came to Nevada. It was a contentious legislative session, and I never imagined that a state senator from Gardnerville, James Settelmeyer, would be the champion for TNCs. Fighting against the powerful and entrenched taxicab industry, what was done that session in Nevada and subsequently played out was also playing out elsewhere: Regular people were turning their personal vehicles into a lucrative side hustle. It would reduce impaired driving, give people the flexibility to supplement their incomes and provide an alternative to people disenchanted with taxis.

Then, as all these stories go these days, the pandemic hit. The laws and regulations limited the ability of TNCs such as Uber and Lyft to enact what they called “dynamic pricing” in a declared emergency, a formula that considers the number of requests in proportion to the number of drivers available. But I don’t think we have seen regulations go far enough in addressing the huge price increases we have seen since the emergency directive from the governor has been lifted. 

Anyone who has ever used a TNC knows what surge pricing is: A temporary higher rate to encourage more drivers to get on the road. When the pandemic hit, obviously there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. TNCs then became a necessity for folks to try to get to doctors’ appointments and grocery store trips. Through the CARES Act, for the first time, Congress allowed gig workers to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). System headaches and delays aside, it allowed people who relied on driving for a TNC as their primary source of income to receive compensation during the pandemic. This was a great policy decision because no one in our community should have had to suffer without an income during the pandemic.

Once things started to open back up, and locals and tourists were chomping at the bit to get back out there to spend money and boost the economy, a lot of TNC drivers didn’t return. In a tale as old as time, the drivers blamed the companies — and the companies blamed the governor. Uber sent an email blast to all its subscribers urging us to rise up and tell the governor that his emergency directives were hurting their drivers. Uber was mad and it wasn’t going to take it any more! Uber’s blame centered on the state directives, the drivers who didn’t want to get vaccinated or the drivers who didn’t want to give up their PUA money.

The image of hours-long waits for rides at the airport and reports of people getting taken advantage of by cash-only TNC imposters has not been a good look. And it still is not enough to herald the return of the golden age of Las Vegas taxicabs, however. As anyone who has tried to catch an Uber or Lyft lately can attest, the change of the scope of the emergency declaration has driven prices through the roof. By allowing these TNCs to charge their “dynamic pricing”, on a recent Friday night I saw an UberXL priced as high as $98 one-way for a seven-mile trip.

Now set that information next to this fact: In the past, it has been shown that in communities where Uber and Lyft operated, they were responsible for as much as a 25 percent decrease in DUI arrests. Not only is an Uber or Lyft far cheaper than the costs of a DUI charge, but the operation of TNCs once substantially reduced drunk driving and DUI arrests in our community. 

The Nevada Transportation Authority, which regulates TNCs, must do more to rein in price gouging. Not only for economic reasons, but for public safety ones, too. Given that we have not (yet) seen a huge increase in taxicab usage, and that there are sometimes no rides to be had without waiting for an hour or paying a ridiculous fare — and as “Vegas is Back!” as the saying goes — I can’t help but think we will soon see an increase in the number of drunk people who decide to get behind the wheel. And we already are seeing complaints from tourists whose experience in town is soured by the inability to get a ride for a reasonable rate. 

Is it the TNCs responsibility to replace personal responsibility? Absolutely not. But if people want to drink, they will. And if there is something reasonable that can be done, it should be done. I am thankful for the TNC drivers who do choose to operate in order to support our residents and our economy. Meanwhile, the TNCs that charge huge fares and blame it all on the drivers are enjoying a regulatory environment which allows for the price gouging.

Uber and Lyft have said that if the state let them charge more, more drivers would be on the roads, which would in turn keep prices reasonable. But that hasn’t happened yet to any substantial degree. People are still waiting 45 minutes to an hour for a $50 ride to go five miles — a ride that could be cancelled on them, five minutes out. 

I am not saying we should go back to not allowing TNCs to ever charge dynamic prices, but there needs to be a reasonable cap on these prices. Or maybe we should all just go back to taking taxis, and call the TNC experiment in Nevada a disappointing failure which, at this point, is now worse than the industry they sought to replace.

Nathaniel Waugh is a member of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Board of Trustees and a program supervisor at Hope for Prisoners where he focuses on workforce development for dislocated workers and recently released offenders. He received his Master of Arts in Urban Leadership from UNLV.

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