$100+ fares and 2-hour wait times: What the Uber and Lyft driver shortage means for you
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The pandemic has resulted in a labor shortage in the gig economy, and the results of this shortage are no more evident than with ride-sharing services, where users have reported experiencing longer than usual wait times at airports — namely for Ubers, Lyfts and taxis.
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The ongoing labor shortage has been only been exacerbated by weather-disrupted travel this summer amidst a post-pandemic travel surge across the country.
In reporting this article, I received more than 200 responses from TPG readers sharing recent experiences of long wait times and increased fares at cities throughout the country, some of which I will share throughout this story, along with anecdotes from TPG staff.
“I waited over two hours for a four-mile ride to San Diego Airport last month. I kept getting notifications that my ride was delayed,” said TPG points & miles editor Ariana Arghandewal. “In Laguna Niguel, there were no Uber rides available during my two-night stay. There was one Lyft driver who kept picking me up and claimed he was ‘the only Lyft driver working in this town.'”
Clint Henderson, TPG’s senior news editor, who has been in Hawaii for the past two weeks, says he has been checking Uber/Lyft daily and finds a minimum 25-minute wait, in addition to a message notifying him that there are few to no cars available.
The problem appears to extend to New York City airports, including Newark (EWR). Senior travel editor Melanie Lieberman recalled the glory days of being able to get an Uber or Lyft from EWR to Jersey City, NJ in “just a few minutes” for $20 to $40. Last week, she was unable to get a single Uber or Lyft after arriving to EWR around 1:00 a.m. on Monday.
“There were NONE,” she said. “So everyone was in line for a taxi. I waited about 45 minutes, some people definitely waited hours.”
Lieberman asked someone at the taxi stand, who attributed the lack of cars to weather-delayed flights landing at the same time.
Under normal circumstances, she says can get an Uber home from EWR in “two minutes for about $23,” for what is a 10-mile, 20-minute ride.
Although TPG writer Stella Shon has not experienced the same difficulty finding an Uber or Lyft at the New York City airports, she has observed the increased fares.
“Even a few months ago (and pre-pandemic), you could expect to pay $50-65, and now you’ll likely pay $100,” she said. “I’ve been taking taxis from the airport instead and save so much money with their flat-rate service.”
Speaking of taxis, the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) confirmed what they referred to as “occasional wait times.”
“Though there are occasional wait times for a taxi or rideshare, there are a sufficient number of TLC-licensed drivers and vehicles operating to service current passenger demand, which is averaging four million rides per week,” a TLC spokesperson said.
Pre-pandemic, NYC taxis and rideshares were servicing more than one million rides per day, and are prepared to meet that threshold as rider levels bounce back.
Both Uber and Lyft, the two most popular ride-sharing companies in the U.S., acknowledged recovery efforts to address long wait times due to driver shortages initiated by the pandemic, as well as increased earnings potential for drivers.
“Earlier this spring, as vaccines rolled out and people started moving again, we began to see the demand for rides outpace the number of available drivers, ” a Lyft spokesperson told me via email. “We’ve added thousands of drivers in the past few weeks and it’s already leading to a better rider experience with wait times down more than 15 percent nationwide, and down 35 percent in some major markets. For drivers, it continues to be a great time to drive with drivers in top markets earning significantly more than they were pre-pandemic.”
In May 2020, the company introduced its Wait & Save program to provide riders the option of a lower fare for a standard ride in exchange for dealing with a longer wait time.
“Riders who choose Wait & Save will always pay less than they would for a standard Lyft ride, and typically the longer they need to wait, the more they will save,” the company said in a statement. “This allows for the rider to be matched with the best-located driver.”
Presently, Lyft is focusing on increasing its driver roster to meet increased rider demand, fueled by comfortability as more drivers are vaccinated. In July 2021, Lyft reintroduced its shared-ride program in select cities for its lowest cost option and has plans to expand to additional markets soon.
Similarly, Uber, the largest taxi and limousine company globally, said drivers have not returned as quickly to the platform post-pandemic, which has led to longer wait times for passengers.
“With the economy bouncing back and more people beginning to move, drivers are returning to the Uber platform to take advantage of higher earnings opportunities,” an Uber spokesperson said via email. “In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a modest decrease in wait times for Uber rides and we hope to continue that progress in the months ahead.”
In April 2021, Uber launched a $250 million stimulus package to “boost high earnings for drivers, including boosted incentives and guarantees,” which the company hopes will lead to more drivers and subsequently reduced wait times and prices.
In the meantime, should you find yourself seeking transportation from an airport, unable to locate and or afford an Uber of Lyft, there are a few alternatives, including from Lyft, which now offers rental cars through its Lyft Rentals program.
“We manage a fleet of professionally cleaned rental cars at our Lyft Rentals locations,” the company says. Its benefits include a $20 Lyft credit, free add-ons (i.e. ski racks, child seats, phone chargers etc); no fees for additional drivers and no expectation to fill the gas tank before returning.
I’m currently in Boston, where I had the option to rent a car from Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) with SIXT, a local rental car agency. Prices ranged from approximately $200-$300.
To get from BOS to my destination in Newbury, I examined both the Lyft and Uber options. Both were around $20, but the Lyft estimated wait time exceeded Ubers by eight minutes. I ultimately settled on taking the T, Boston’s MBTA subway system, for $2.40.
If you find yourself at the airport, struggling to get a ride, TPG’s editor-at-large, Zach Honig, has a tip for you.
“My new hack? If you didn’t check bags, request an Uber just as you’re pulling into the gate to ensure the car’s waiting in the garage by the time you make it there. Otherwise, you could end up baking in the summer heat as you wait,” he said. “Going forward, I might consider renting a car in Vegas, despite some of the hassles associated with the experience, like finding parking, taking the shuttle to and from the airport and filling up with gas before returning. Other considerations that I’d recommend include having your hotel pre-arrange a car. It will cost you dearly, but less than missing your flight.”
There are also car services that people can order in major cities, including Blacklane, a global chauffeur service and Stay Classy, a car service that operates to/from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), both of which were recommended by TPG staff.
If all else fails, there’s always the old-school option of driving oneself to the airport and paying less than you might have previously to do so (check out 10 ways to save on airport parking here). The convenience of having your own car alone may be worth it.
Featured photo by Nisian Hughes via Getty Images
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