It began as frantic holiday travel has since the dawn of time, with an argument about when to leave for the airport.
To my husband’s mind, the only sensible approach to a 9 p.m. flight from LaGuardia is a departure from Brooklyn made shortly after sunrise. In this instance — the Friday before Christmas — there would be hideous traffic and heavy rain compounding the routine price surge in getting a car during peak rush hour, which is, inevitably, when we left.
“So, how much do you think the Lyft cost?’’ my husband asked as we checked in. He was looking at his phone with a sour expression. “Eighty?” I offered.
In fact, the trip that typically ran about $35 had cost $192. For the sake of perspective, several days after the flight, car trouble requiring us to use an Uber to travel 111 miles from Huntsville, Ala., to Birmingham, where we were visiting family, happened to cost exactly $192.
It had not escaped my attention that the price of moving from one place to another in New York via ride-hailing apps had seemed increasingly exorbitant. When I contacted a spokeswoman for Lyft about this and mentioned the matter of my $192 ride, I was told that the driver extended the route and because of that my husband was entitled to a refund.
Apart from this specific instance, prices always climb when demand is very high, and demand is always high during the holidays. We expect this. Yet even by that standard, my experience has been startling — $50 to send a babysitter home to downtown Manhattan simply from the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, late one night in mid-December. Friends and neighbors have shared similar stories of sticker shock.
On December 23, a woman posted a screen shot of her Uber options to John F. Kennedy Airport, on Twitter. The cheapest of them turned out to be the company’s helicopter service from Lower Manhattan, which came in at $101.39. The cost of a car was $126.84.
A number of factors combined to produce this new reality. Chief among them, according to James Parrott, an economist who analyzes data on ride-hailing services both as an independent academic and adviser to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is the fact that Uber and Lyft had discounted prices in advance of each company’s initial public offering last year.
Rides were artificially cheap. When those IPOs were completed, fares went up (presumably) to satisfy shareholder demand for profitability. Nevertheless, entry onto Wall Street has been disappointing.
Beyond that, last February, a congestion surcharge imposed by the State of New York went into effect for Uber and Lyft (along with their competitors), which imposed an additional $2.75 fee for cars traversing Manhattan’s central business district. At the very same time, the city’s mandatory wage increase for drivers — which ensures a minimum hourly wage of $17.22, after expenses — also took hold.
These are essential, welcome developments. Most app-based drivers in New York City rely on Uber, Lyft and the other companies as their sole employers; they are not moonlighting to make extra money to fund their independent films. Congestion pricing in central Manhattan is long overdue.
But the wage increase, Mr. Parrott told me, has left Uber and Lyft paying a combined additional $50 million a month in driver pay. And then there is the cap on the number of new vehicles the city allows Uber and Lyft to operate, which was extended over the summer, a factor suppressing supply.
Although data for Uber and Lyft rides taken during the past few months is not yet available, Mr. Parrott said, from the numbers he has seen, fares started to escalate in May, and at the same time the use of Uber has slipped. Close to 556,000 Uber rides were taken in New York City in March. By October, that number had declined to 468,000.
Obviously, if Uber stops seeming like a reasonable alternative to yellow taxis, people will use it less. The real problem is that the rising cost ride-hailing services seems inclined to disproportionately affect passengers outside of central Manhattan, where 53 percent of rides taken in the city begin.
A 73-year-old woman in Canarsie should not have to confront a 100 percent spike in the price of her trip to the cardiologist, 15 minutes away in Brooklyn, because traffic is a mess on Madison Avenue.
And yet that, more or less, seems to be the kind of scenario that is playing out. Data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission looking at travel patterns from mid-2017 to June 2018 indicate that pickups in certain parts of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan had doubled. Growth in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, where access to public transportation is less reliable and where median income is lower than it is on, say, the Upper West Side, was also high.
One possible solution to any uneven distribution of burden might be to lift caps in parts of the city where congestion is less of a concern than it is in the core of Manhattan, below 96th Street. This would make more cars available in places where they are needed, which would in turn deflate prices in less affluent parts of the city.
Lawmakers could also think about simply making the cost of beginning a trip by Uber or Lyft in Manhattan more expensive than it is and leave the rest of the city alone. In effect, ride-hailing would be thought of as a luxury in a place already well-serviced by public transportation and yellow cabs, and priced accordingly.
A city afflicted by nostalgia might enjoy a return to hailing a ride by hand.