This winter, Dani Rose, a New York-based photographer, ordered an Uber to take her from an event she was working in Brooklyn to her home in Queens. She usually takes the train, but she was trying to get home before a snowstorm. A nearby driver responded to her request for a ride and starting heading in her direction.
However, after she typed her destination into the app, the driver suddenly seemed to stop moving towards her. Instead, he circled around several blocks away and refused to answer her calls, she said. He also wouldn’t cancel Rose’s ride request on the app, which made it impossible for her to get another Uber. Rose was stuck.
“By the time I got in a new cab, it was 40 minutes after I originally called a car and I was freezing in the snow carrying heavy photography equipment,” she said. She believes that drivers would rather pull these stunts than drive her to her neighborhood, which is largely residential and may not have as many lucrative pick-ups for drivers once they arrive.
Since then, the same phenomenon has occurred once out of every three or four rides when Rose orders a car from Lyft or Uber. Several users of ride-hailing apps told MarketWatch that drivers, instead of canceling a ride when they cannot or do not want to take a fare, drive in nonsensical directions until the rider cancels and is charged a $5 fee.
Overworked and underpaid drivers may purposely opt out of less lucrative pick-ups. “If Uber had a total cap on drivers and doubled their pay, these issues would go away,” said Andrew, a driver for Uber and Lyft in New Orleans. “No one wants to turn down a ride, but you’re pretty much forced to sometimes.”
A newly passed New York City measure that will cap the number of drivers and create a minimum wage for ride-sharing employees could help remedy the problem. Because apps penalize drivers for canceling, many will do everything they can to force the rider to cancel first, Andrew said. If he believes his customer is traveling to a place that won’t give him a lucrative ride, he said, “I’ll just stay where I am or go into airplane mode for five minutes.”
There are a number of reasons drivers refuse to pick up riders, said Andrew, who asked his last name be withheld to avoid problems with his job. Some prefer routes to airports or other specific destinations that guarantee a good fare. Others want to avoid neighborhoods they perceive as dangerous or more crime-ridden, or simply areas that have fewer potential pickups, he said.
Ippei Takahashi, founder of rideshare comparison site RideGuru, said such practices are common on ride-hailing apps. Sometimes rather than cancelling a fare, the driver will turn off his phone for five minutes and then mark the passenger as a “no show” to avoid a fee for cancelling.
In other cases, drivers have reportedly selected “start trip” on the app without picking up a passenger, and then “end trip” without dropping a passenger off. The passenger is then charged for the short ride and the driver can claim innocence by saying he picked up the wrong passenger.
Uber has “a number of tools and policies in place” to prevent riders from incurring costs because of this kind of driver behavior, a spokesman told MarketWatch, but did not elaborate on what they are.
Lyft said it has a number of measures to ensure drivers do not cancel on riders, and to detect when drivers take inefficient routes. A driver who does this repeatedly can be suspended or banned from the app, Lyft spokesman Chris Nishimura told MarketWatch.
“Lyft has a driver and passenger re-matching system currently in place that swaps out the current driver for another who is close to a passenger’s pickup destination if the app detects that the original driver is not making reasonable progress toward the pickup location,” Nishimura said.
Jessica Pettway, a 23-year-old photographer, who is black, said when drivers cancel on her she wonders if it is because of her race. In the past she has obscured her face in ride-sharing app photos and excluded a photo entirely to avoid discrimination.
Drivers cannot see a passenger’s photo or destination until after they accept the passenger’s ride request — a policy Uber and Lyft have celebrated as an alternative for passengers of color who have trouble hailing traditional cabs.
Nonetheless, black passengers using ride-hailing apps have to wait an average of 1 minute and 43 seconds longer than white counterparts and are 4% more likely to have drivers cancel on them, a 2018 study from the University of California, Los Angeles found. This is an improvement over experiences with traditional taxis, for which black passengers have to wait six to 15 minutes longer and are 73% more likely to have drivers cancel on them.
Takahashi said if a driver is not responding to your calls or texts, a rider must cancel within two minutes of ordering to avoid a cancellation fee. Take screenshots of the trip to verify the driver’s route.
“Keep an eye on the GPS location of the driver,” he said. “If the vehicle is not actively moving towards you (or at all), Uber will not charge you cancellation fee. Even if they do charge you a fee, make sure to dispute this and claim the driver did not make an effort to get to your location. Since Uber tracks and records driver movements, you will have a good case.”
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