As another New Years’ Eve has come and gone, more writers in Saint Louis and across the nation have spilled ink over expensive Uber rides for partiers. Fares were as much as ten times what Uber normally charges, leading some to pay well over $100 for short rides. For all the complaining, it is important to remember why Uber uses “surge pricing” and why new ridesharing services are so popular in Saint Louis and nationwide.
It was not so long ago that Uber was not available in any city, much less Saint Louis. Heavy regulation restricted the supply of cabs in most large cities. With competition ruled out, it was often a sellers’ market for cab rides, especially at times like New Years’ Eve. It was the type of environment where someone could write an article like “How to Get a Cab in San Francisco and 4 Other Tips From Taxi Drivers,” which put the inability to hail cabs at the feet of “bossy” and otherwise clueless residents. In Saint Louis, on New Years’ Eves past, much of the taxi fleet decided additional fares weren’t worth their time and stayed home. Partiers waited hours for cabs that did not come.
With the introduction of ridesharing companies, findng a ride home is getting better across the country. People complain about surge pricing, but being able to make 2 or 10 times the normal fares keeps drivers on the road when it’s late or when it’s cold or when it’s New Years’ Eve. An expensive ride home is better than no ride home. Despite fears that ridesharing would lead to underservice of far-flung or economically disadvantaged areas, Uber provides transportation options where taxis are hard to find. At the time of writing, an Uber is within five minutes of my location in the Central West End. But it’s also available within six minutes of locations in Ferguson.
What of traditional cabs? Some may fear that Uber and its ilk spell the end of traditional cabs, but traditional taxis do have advantages. They have full-time drivers who could have more driving experience and knowledge of their cities. Taxi service is integrated into the civic environment, with cab lines at airports, hotels, and cab stands. Centralized operations could allow taxi companies to enforce standards of cleanliness and customer service that Uber cannot.
Some of these changes may already be happening. New data shows that increased competition from ridesharing is raising customer service levels for traditional cabs. Complaints against cabs have fallen greatly in New York City, and in Chicago there are suddenly fewer broken credit card machines. Whether traditional cab companies will survive is still an open question. We can only hope that in Saint Louis, and in other cities, the question is answered by potential customers, not regulatory bodies.