The price comparison made the decision easy.
Kai Hicks landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — one of his first trips since the coronavirus pandemic started — and chose a $3 ticket for Sound Transit’s Link light rail over an Uber trip home to Ballard that would cost upward of $60.
“It’s cheaper, and I’m not in a rush,” said Hicks, 35, while standing on the light-rail platform Thursday afternoon.
As coronavirus restrictions ease and parts of Washington state reopen, ride-hailing passengers venturing out may see increased rates to get around the Puget Sound region. The higher prices are prompting riders to weigh their transportation options by cost and convenience, particularly during times of day when transit operates less frequently.
More expensive ride-hailing trips also are making taxi rides more competitive. Kassa Terefe, who drives for ABM taxi company, said the cost to ride from the airport to downtown Seattle is about $40, and he has noticed an increase in customers in the past few weeks.
Across the country, Uber and Lyft say fewer drivers on their apps, combined with higher demand from riders, is driving up costs per trip. In Seattle, the additional price spike for Uber trips comes after the company raised its rates by 50% earlier this year after the city’s new minimum-wage law for ride-hailing drivers.
The law went into effect Jan. 1, and Uber gradually increased its rates up to 50% on April 1.
“We’ve seen a lot of rider demand come back. People get vaccinated; they want to see loved ones; they want to go out to dinner and drinks,” said Harry Hartfield, a spokesperson for Uber. “Drivers haven’t necessarily come back in the same numbers.”
When demand exceeds the number of drivers on the road, Uber implements surge pricing, which customers are now experiencing, he said.
Last month at the J.P. Morgan Technology, Media and Communications Conference, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he wants to lower the prices of rides.
“The supply position is something we’re still working on. It’s definitely getting better, but we’re not happy with the [estimated time of arrivals] and price levels we see, and that is something we’re going to invest to improve on,” he said.
Uber has created a $250 million stimulus package designed to help get more drivers on the road through incentives and bonuses. The week of May 17, 33,000 new drivers joined the platform, Hartfield said. “We’re slowly seeing drivers return, but it’s going to take a while.”
However in Seattle, “most of that price increase is here to stay,” he said, citing the new wage laws.
Joshua Welter, a representative from Teamsters Local 117 — a union that advocates for ride-hailing drivers — argued that the larger factor contributing to higher prices is the companies’ “need to satisfy” shareholders and quarterly demands for profit.
“Blaming price hikes on anything else feels a little bit like smoke and mirrors,” he said.
Hartfield rejected any suggestion that profitability desires contributed to price hikes.
Welter also challenged Uber’s portrayal of a shortage of drivers causing price hikes, saying “they have people knocking on their doors right now.”
Mawiir Deng, who has driven for Uber for three years, said he has not been able to get Uber to renew his for-hire license, which expired in December. Under King County policy, the transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft, are responsible for submitting applications on behalf of interested drivers.
“When I call Uber, they give me a different story every time,” Deng said. “I do all they are asking for, but they won’t do it.”
Hartfield said while he couldn’t speak to the specifics of license renewals in Washington, he said courthouses and DMV offices were closed for a period of time during the pandemic, and many are now operating at limited capacity with lower staff levels.
“If you’ve been offline for a while, you might go through another background-check process. Court records have taken awhile,” he said. “That’s created a backup for a lot of people.
A spokesperson for Lyft also blamed the price increases on a driver shortage.
“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,” Eric Smith, the Lyft spokesperson, said in an emailed statement. “We’ve added thousands of drivers in the past few weeks and it’s already leading to a better rider experience.”
Peter Kuel, who has driven for Lyft for five years and is president of the driver’s union, said even as prices are spiking, drivers are not reaping the benefits — a dynamic playing out in other parts of the country.
He recently earned $16 on a trip from Bellevue to Renton that cost the customer $38, which he discovered through conversation with the rider after the passenger had entered the wrong drop-off location.
Uber and Lyft’s surge pricing rates come as transit agencies in the Puget Sound are expanding their hours of operation, service schedules and number of passengers permitted on board as pandemic restrictions ease.
Sound Transit has restored service so trains arrive every eight minutes at peak commute times.
Metro is now determining whether the agency can restore its rider-capacity limits to pre-pandemic levels, Bill Bryant, the managing director for King County Metro’s service development, said during a recent county council meeting. In April, Metro increased its passenger limits to 40% of what a packed bus can carry.
Tired and hungry after their flight, Ashley McLaughlin and her husband David ordered a $43 Uber on Thursday from SeaTac to their home in the Leschi neighborhood that they said normally costs around $30.
But the price increases, Ashely said, have been “making me want to take Link more.”