Rideshare services, while still private companies with their own profit motives and foibles, have become like utilities we take for granted. But the days of quick and easy Uber rides seem to be gone since the pandemic.
Sure, you can still find a car most of the time, and it costs a bit more than it used to. The days of Uber fares being cheaper than traditional taxis are pretty much gone, though it depends on the hour.
Uber drivers, meanwhile, aren't being compensated very well and it remains to be seen if that ballot prop that Uber and Lyft underwrote in 2020 to keep all drivers as freelance gig workers will hold up in court. Just two weeks ago a union hoping to get gig workers like rideshare drivers unionized held a big rally outside Uber's headquarters in Mission Bay.
But anecdotally — read: this has happened to me a lot recently and a few people I know — it seems that the user experience of getting an Uber to pick you up in San Francisco, and maybe in other cities, has taken a dive, with drivers canceling fares on the regular after they see the destination.
I have a pretty solid rating, likely brought down by one or two obnoxious friends over the years — 4.86 — so I don't think that is to blame for drivers not wanting to pick me up. What I do think is to blame — though I have not confirmed this — is that drivers are looking to maximize their time and/or they have more freedom to refuse a pickup if it's heading in a direction they don't like, without penalty. That is all well and good, from the perspective of keeping drivers happy, but it makes for a pretty frustrating experience when you're late getting somewhere and you watch, for ten minutes, as drivers accept the ride and then cancel on you in the app, restarting the clock for when you will be picked up.
In one recent scenario, it was a busy Friday night in the Mission, and I only needed to go about 12 blocks, but I was keeping someone waiting and wanted to grab a car. I watched in the app as about five drivers picked up the fare and then canceled, delaying me an extra 15 minutes, and it took about 18 minutes to finally get a car to pick me up.
On a recent weeknight after 10 p.m. I was looking to go home — a trip in the middle of the city that totals about 12 blocks, some uphill — and a car was coming, according to the app, in four minutes. I was waiting outside, partly obscured by a parklet structure, and I watched as the car approached, I noted the license plate, and as I walked closer to the curb expecting it to stop, it didn't. The car rolled by, continued down the block and disappeared, and I saw on the app that a new car would be coming in eight minutes.
In a third instance, I needed to cross the bridge to Sausalito for an event with a scheduled start time in about a half hour. After seeing my fare get picked up and then rejected in the app about four times, a driver arrived to pick me up. I watched as we drove down the block and he looked at the GPS, putting his head in his hands. Three blocks away, he said, "Can you please take another car." I said, no, I'd prefer not to, and I was already running late. About two more blocks went by and the driver said he was turning around and canceling the fare, that he had somewhere to be, and he couldn't take me to Sausalito just then.
This experience repeated itself with a second driver who arrived and I got in his car, but that driver saw the destination and just told me to get out. "Uber doesn't pay enough!" he shouted. "I cross the bridge and then it's $9 to come back!"
I'm unclear on whether Uber will compensate drivers for a bridge toll if they can't find a fare on the other side — another driver told me that the company does this — but this may be a valid concern. It's still a trip that takes just 15-18 minutes from where I live — had I been traveling to the Outer Sunset or Stonestown it might have even been a longer trip, so would the drivers have refused me then too?
To be clear, over the years I've had friends who live in the Sunset and Richmond say that getting Lyft and Uber drivers to take them home at night is sometimes a challenge. And the rideshare services have often had to answer for drivers who are racist, homophobic or transphobic, treating riders poorly or refusing service if they're a person of color, or gender non-conforming, or dressed in drag, or making out with someone of the same gender.
But isn't this the job? Taking people where they ask to go for a price? Doesn't the service become much less useful if half the drivers refuse to go your desired direction? Is this uniquely happening a lot around San Francisco, or is this happening all over? Is this happening more on Uber than Lyft?
Regular taxicabs in Manhattan were famously unwilling to take people to Brooklyn or Queens back in the day, and then Uber came along and decimated their business by making interborough travel simpler and easier, among other things. But is that still the case?
I've reached out to Uber corporate for some insight, and we'd like to hear from you. Has this happened to you? Are you an Uber driver who would like to sound off on why you typically cancel a fare before — or immediately after — picking someone up?
Tell us at [email protected] or leave your story in the comments.
Photo: Dan Gold