When the Michigan couple visited Las Vegas last month, they had to wait for nearly one hour at McCarran International Airport for a ride-share to the resort corridor.
Tuesday, as they again approached the line, they braced for another extended delay in starting their stay. They were among a crowd of several dozen in line at the airport’s Terminal 1 ride-sharing pickup area.
“It says it’s about a 20-minute wait, which doesn’t seem that bad,” said Delane Boog, who had arrived minutes earlier with her husband, Greg Boog, ahead of a stay on the Strip at Park MGM.
Depending on the day, time and location, longer-than-normal wait times for Uber, Lyft and taxi rides in Las Vegas have become common since visitation started to increase this spring after business closures and capacity limitations spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
For Las Vegas, which prides itself on service and a positive visitor experience, it’s a phenomenon that Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom said could continue through the summer and negatively affect visitors’ reactions to their stay. The commission is the governing body of the Strip.
“I’ve seen a lot of complaints lately,” Segerblom said. “I know people are also having to sometimes get an upscale Uber or Lyft in order to get a vehicle.
We need to get more drivers, and it might take a few months to get caught up.”
Segerblom added that “part of what makes Las Vegas great is that it’s so simple. The airport is close to everything, and we’ve had a great transportation system. If we lost that permanently, it would be a disaster.”
Las Vegas is likely to be even more of a popular destination this summer as COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted around the country. And many domestic travelers will be heading here because international travel is still mostly dormant.
The Strip is already back to pre-pandemic numbers with packed restaurants, droves of pedestrians along Las Vegas Boulevard, and hotel occupancies rising like summertime desert temperatures. Capacity limits at venues and mask requirements for vaccinated individuals were lifted last week by the commission.
Ride-sharing services seem to have been caught on their heels.
“Demand has returned to the Las Vegas market very quickly,” said Javi Correoso, an Uber spokesman. “As people continue to become vaccinated, we think that trend will continue for a city that attracts a lot of out-of-town visitors. Demand has returned quicker than drivers returning to the road, which has led to some of the issues that we’ve been seeing in that market.”
The problem boils down to supply and demand: When visitors weren’t going out during the pandemic, most drivers weren’t working. Now, people are going out again, and not enough drivers have returned to the roads.
Industry officials attribute the shortage to several factors, including some drivers still collecting jobless benefits and others not ready to share a car with strangers during a public health crisis.
Representatives from Uber and Lyft acknowledge the driver shortage problem in Las Vegas, pointing to a pandemic “state of emergency” rule put in place by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak as the main culprit.
Under state law, “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft cannot charge a fare “in excess of the base rate on file on the date of the emergency.”
Since Sisolak declared a pandemic state of emergency last year, ride-sharing services can’t present “dynamic pricing” options, which they say encourage drivers to work certain busy times because they can earn more.
Both Lyft and Uber are actively trying to get the Nevada Transportation Authority to alter its rules for dynamic pricing.
In a May 10 letter sent to the authority, Lyft regulatory compliance manager Elizabeth Gallagher said, “Fares collected by (transportation network companies) in excess of the base rate may be distributed to drivers throughout the region in the form of driver bonuses and incentives designated to get drivers on the road during periods of high demand.”
Meghin Delaney, the governor’s communications director, said the emergency declaration would stay in effect until the state’s chief medical officer notified Sisolak that the COVID-19 emergency has abated.
“Although the situation in the state of Nevada is improving, COVID-19 is still with us and the governor’s advisers have not recommended terminating the declaration of emergency,” she said.
While Segerblom and others wonder whether the companies should simply offer more base pay to drivers in an effort to attract more workers, Correoso said it’s not that simple.
He said many drivers simply have returned to the workforce because they’re worried about contracting COVID-19, though Uber drivers and riders are still required to wear masks.
“What we’ve heard from drivers is that safety continues to be the No. 1 issue for them,” Correoso said. “A lot of drivers haven’t returned because they don’t feel comfortable having someone in the car. As more people become vaccinated, drivers are starting to return, but we’re not where we were pre-pandemic.”
Correoso added that Uber was providing cash bonus incentives to drivers to return. A driver in Las Vegas averaging 20 hours on the road per week was taking home just under $30 per hour, he said.
With visitor volumes increasing by the month, however, the driver workforce just isn’t keeping up.
In March, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, more than 2.2 million people visited the city, a 45% increase from February. When the April visitation totals are released later this month, they are expected to eclipse the March totals.
Along with the ride-sharing companies, Las Vegas taxi providers are also finding it difficult to get drivers on the road.
JD Decker, interim director for the Nevada Taxi Authority, the agency that regulates the 16 cab companies operating in the state, said it would take time to prime the industry after being basically dormant for months.
“We are seeing issues getting drivers in cars, but companies are trying to hire,” Decker said. “I think we’re probably suffering the worst of it right now. After being in isolation for so long, people are coming back to Las Vegas, but the taxi companies haven’t caught up yet. It will get back to normal, but it’s going to take time.”
Just how much time remains anyone’s guess.
Decker said he’s aware of complaints about wait times that have trickled in from the public. He’s also heard from Las Vegas casino officials who have inquired about what could possibly be done to remedy the situation.
“It’s taking longer to get rides, but visitors to Las Vegas do tend to find their way,” Decker said. “There’s extra money going to drivers who take riders to and from McCarran, and some companies are paying some of the permitting fees for cars. The companies know there’s an issue, and they’re trying to see what works to help fix it.”
With Memorial Day weekend on the horizon and what’s expected to be a busy summer all for leisure travel, it’s possible the driver shortage could get worse.
In April, according to figures from the authority, just under 897,000 taxi trips were recorded.
That’s well up from the 12,200 trips recorded in April 2020 during the height of the pandemic shutdown, but still about 275,000 rides short of what was recorded by the 16 cab companies in April 2019.
Along with the taxi and ride-sharing companies, Las Vegas also has public transportation options.
The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada provides a bus line — its Maryland Parkway route — that connects to the airport.
From that line, passengers can connect with the commission’s “Deuce on the Strip” line, which travels up and down the tourist corridor, from the South Strip Transit Terminal, near the McCarran Rent-A-Car Center, north to the Fremont Street Experience.
Francis Julien, the RTC’s deputy CEO said the rideshare and taxi driver issues underscore the importance of public transportation options in Las Vegas.
He said there were cameras placed at bus stops so employees could monitor crowd levels. If too many riders are waiting, Julien said, the RTC will add vehicles.
“During the last couple Fridays and Saturdays, we had a bus coming every eight minutes at peak demand along the Strip,” Julien said. “People don’t have to wait 30 minutes. The increases (in riders) that we’ve seen the past four or five months, we’re attributing basically all of that to tourists. The double-decker buses on the Deuce line also just offer an amazing way to experience the tourist corridor.”
Julien said that mobile phone users on the Uber or Lyft app actually have an option to purchase an RTC bus ticket without having to leave the ride-sharing app they’re using.
Still, not everybody has a desire to ride a city bus, even a cool-looking double-decker version. Many drivers have gotten used to the convenience of ride-sharing apps in recent years. And it’s not like it’s always difficult to hail an Uber or Lyft these days. Much depends on time and place.
At the airport Tuesday, a few paces away from the Boogs, Timothy Esposito and Kaylenne McClure, both from Los Angeles, waited for their Lyft after arriving from Southern California.
On McClure’s phone, the Lyft app showed the pair would need to wait only a few minutes for their ride.
“We know things are opening up now, so we knew there was a chance that we’d have to wait longer,” McClure said. “But this isn’t bad at all.”
Segerblom said what’s happened with Strip transportation options was a good reminder of the “law of unexpected consequences,” and he added that the longer wait times were the result of a free market problem that probably needed a free market solution.
“Before Uber and Lyft, we had a great taxi system for the Strip, though it wasn’t great if you weren’t on the Strip,” Segerblom said. “When Uber and Lyft came in, they basically decimated the cab industry here. We brought in this unregulated industry and now we’re paying for it. My thought is that we need to maybe try to limit Uber and Lyft so we can keep our taxi and bus system viable, just in case something happens.”
A spokeswoman for the Nevada Resort Association said the organization has not heard complaints from its members about ride-sharing or taxi wait times at their properties. Representatives from the major Strip gaming companies had no comment.
*By Bryan Horwath, Las Vegas Sun*