Uber Prices Surging All Day in Poor, Minority Neighborhoods with COVID-Cut Transit

Street Justice Newsletter: Vol 2, Edition 89 (7/11/2020)

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Uber Surge Price Map Show’s DC Area Demand for Commuting, Despite COVID Conditions

The Washington region’s least walkable areas — with disproportionally high populations of low income and BIPOC people are suffering from a lack of plentiful transit and non-car transportation services. That’s according to maps of Uber surge prices shown to Street Justice by a long-time and reliable source who drives for the ride-hail company. The driver, who lives in Maryland and has driven for Uber for one year, explained that the magnitude of the fare premiums and the hours they were in effect was unusual.

Uber charges surge prices to passengers as an excise tax on top of the base fare of a ride. It’s a blunt instrument creating temporarily higher earnings for drivers as a way to entice the ride suppliers into geographic areas where there’s more demand for trips than the supply of free drivers. Uber/Lyft/Via all specialize in these “gamified” interventions into the market for rides. [Takes note down in the Street Justice ideas notebook for a story that explains all the different games the apps use to mess with drivers and riders.] The important thing to know is that these surge prices can make “affordable” Uber rides on par with transit fares into unaffordable luxuries.

The public policy and social justice problem is that those luxury expense prices are being paid in the DC area now by residents who need Uber for essential trips. Our driver source shared several pictures of surge maps as shown in the driver app. These maps, taken on a weekday mid-morning this past week, show a high surge fee in Northeast and Southeast DC — plus SW in Ward 8. Also, Prince George’s County inside the Beltway all around DC and eastern Montgomery County.

These are the working class and predominantly Black suburbs of Washington, DC. The surging areas inside the District are essentially perfect superimposition of maps of COVID-19 deaths, tree cover, traffic deaths, violent crime, and low car ownership (due to low income, rather than lifestyle). Street Justice notes especially that our northern parts of Ward 5 and north Ward 4 are included in these neighborhoods.

Street Justice asked our driver source to show a surge map including Northern Virginia. The header image above shows surging in the western edges of the City of Alexandria and into southern Fairfax County. That’s a region of unworkable, car-driven suburbs and low-density land use. There are long-term studies and capital project plans to improve transit service in the Route 1 corridor there. But, the current situation is car ownership/access as table stakes for societal participation. A second screenshot below shows no surge in NoVA a few hours later on a weekday.

Uber surge prices are multiples of base fares and adjust to an algorithm that responds to live data on supply and demand in the app. It’s complicated on the rider side, but looking at the driver side in these screenshots shows huge additional fees on even short rides. The lowest-income residents in the region — who maybe don’t have long distances to commute — will have to pay the most if they can’t access transit or walk/bike commuting. This is a common story in Prince George’s County: commutes of only a few miles but that trip involves 2-3 state highways with 6-8 lanes each at 55 mph prevailing speeds.

“If you want to make money, Ward 7/8 is always surging,” the source wrote. “It's just normal folks just trying to get to work.” They just started driving again after spending recent times in Maryland at home staying safe from COVID. “It's never been like this before. Is transit not running fully?” Street Justice explained that WMATA, TheBus, RideOn, and DC’s Circulator have not returned to even weekend-levels of service after COVID cuts.

“It's people just trying to get to work and Uber is probably the only option. And that's the entire problem with transit systems here,” the source continued. “This is a very bad situation for less affluent folks in the DMV.” They said that these weekday surges, all day long and with premiums that high, are not normal.

Those surge fees are used as a market mechanism for Uber to lower wait times and — the company says — better serve its customers. But, those fees are also the taxes poor people in the DC area pay for needing to get to work, not having a high enough income to access a car, and not having the time deal with the unacceptably long wait times of unwalkable land-use in affordable neighborhoods and already poor transit service cut to the bone by DC-area transit agencies. “One passenger told me a public transit commute for her is 2 hours,” said our driver source.

More Volunteers Needed

Street Justice has its first informal group meeting this Sunday (TOMORROW!) for folks interested in volunteering as non-profit board members (10-15 hours per month), advisors (3-5 hrs/mo), or informal mentors (1-2 hrs/mo). I’m excited to have men and women, with many people from suburban Maryland. However, few have been able to commit to anything yet (for understandable reasons). Street Justice needs more interested volunteers!

Please, please consider volunteering — even just join our informal meeting on Sunday at 3 PM (or on-demand via the link in the agenda/minutes). Here is the three regular volunteer roles and the other ad hoc help we need. Please register for the informal meeting ahead of time.

Goals for this meeting:

  1. Describe the roles and discuss how to divvy them up to make sure there's redundancy in skillset and enough support where it is needed for organization success. Where do we need help recruiting more volunteers?

  2. Evaluate the current, dire need for fundraising. Discuss current revenue streams and how best to bring in a foundation of funds.

  3. Discuss the draft budget for a Fiscal Year that would begin October 1.

  4. Create a checklist of to-do items on a budget, operations, government applications, and editorial strategy.

Ideal Timeline:

  • By July 31 - Volunteers have decided where they can contribute: 3+ board members, 7+ for the formal advisor group

  • Early August - 1st official board meeting: elect board members, adopt bylaws, hire executive director, approve org status applications, discuss fundraising progress

  • September - 2nd official board meeting: finalize and adopt a budget, finish plan for accounting workflow

  • October 1. 2020 - Street Justice begins formal operations with a business bank account and operating under the FY 2021 budget

New 📷 🎥🎙️ 📊

  • (Multimedia Content Archive > 2020 > July) [REDACTED FOR FREE EDITION]

News Tidbits

“The Last Reporter in Town Had One Big Question for His Rich Boss: His newspaper has withered under a hedge fund. His industry was in turmoil even before a pandemic. But Evan Brandt won’t stop chronicling his town.” That’s a great story from by Dan Barry, with multimedia by Haruka Sakaguchi, in the NYT.

“The company had established a newsroom hub for its area newspapers at a printing plant about 20 miles from Pottstown. The Mercury was now little more than an editor working from home, a couple of sportswriters, a courts reporter in the Montgomery County seat of Norristown — and Mr. Brandt, alone in Pottstown and scrambling as always to stay on top of everything, everywhere.”

Surveys/Public Comment Periods

Social Media Activity

ICYMI: Yesterday, Street Justice shared the video highlights of a long citizen testimony hearing we hosted about homelessness and social services in DC. Speakers repeated verified facts of this challenge: "housing first" policies enable far better mental and physical health outcomes. Washington, DC currently funds only approximately 10 percent of the pre-existing need for permanent supportive housing (PSH) for the chronically homeless.

Events Calendar

  • Full Events Calendar on TeamUp: https://teamup.com/ksit5hj89moo3w36fm

  • This Week’s Password (case-sensitive): [REDACTED FOR FREE EDITION]

  • I hope to cover the public events highlighted below in person.

Thurs 7/16: ANC Candidate Training, hosted by Greater Greater Washington [Details]

Upcoming Street Justice Livestream Broadcasts

Mon 7/27: ANC 4B (Takoma/Brightwood Park) July Meeting [Link]


DISCLAIMER: Street Justice is subjective journalism. We produce factually accurate, thoroughly reported content. We write with a personal and opinionated voice, contrary to “view from nowhere” journalism that produces an unrealistically symmetrical portrayal of matters in dispute. Where there are power dynamics, Street Justice applies greater scrutiny to agents and stakeholders with greater privilege and more questionable motives.