Uber says it will cap surge pricing in New York City during this weekend's upcoming blizzard, but only under two conditions.
"If a state of emergency is declared, or the attorney general advises us the agreement has been triggered, then we will be capping uberX at 3.5x [the normal fare] and Uber BLACK at 2.8x, per the terms of the agreement," a spokesperson for Uber told The Verge.
uberX could be capped at 3.5x the normal fare
So far, no state of emergency has been declared in New York. Other cities and states along the East Coast have declared emergencies ahead of this weekend's forecasted snowstorm, including Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued a travel warning, but has not declared an official emergency.
That leaves Uber in the nebulous position of waiting for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to tell it whether this weekend's weather will be nasty enough to trigger the agreement he reached with the ride-hail company back in 2014.
Under that agreement, Uber said it would cap surge pricing during "abnormal disruptions of the market," such as weather, natural disasters, civil unrest, war, or a strike, that would activate the state's anti-price gouging laws. The cap would equal the fourth highest surged price in the city over the previous two months. After reaching the agreement with New York, Uber said it would voluntarily make it a nationwide policy.
That leaves Uber in a nebulous position
Schneiderman's office wouldn't comment beyond telling The Verge that it is open to the possibility of triggering the agreement. The attorney general issued a warning earlier in the day about price gouging, reminding businesses that New York state law "prohibits excessive increases in prices of essential goods and services like food, water, gas, generators, batteries, and flashlights, hotel lodging, and transportation."
It's entirely likely that New York won't get as much snow as its neighbors to the south. The latest forecast calls for between 6 and 12 inches to fall in the Big Apple, while other areas could get as much as 2 feet.
Uber's issues with surge pricing during emergency events are somewhat unique. Lyft has its own version of surge pricing called Prime Time, which goes into effect automatically during periods of high demand. But a spokesperson said Lyft disables it when a state of emergency is declared.
Terrible PR begets charitable acts
Most riders have learned to live with Uber's surge pricing, although some still complain loudly when they see their jacked up bill at the end of a ride. Uber provides ample warning to passengers about impending surge prices during periods of high demand, like Halloween or New Year's Eve. And the company has long argued that surge pricing is not only a good thing, but necessary, because it encourages more drivers to hit the road. (Although some critics say that Uber has been known to artificially drive up demand by keeping drivers off the road until surge pricing kicks in.)
The company says that when the cap is in effect, as it was during last January's (arguably pretty mild) snowstorm, it donates its cut of each fare — 20 percent — to the Red Cross. The charitable offer came after several instances of bad PR for the company, like when Uber activated surge pricing during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or during a hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia, in 2014.
The effects are still lingering: Uber had to fend off rumors that it was charging passengers 400x the normal rate during the terrorist attacks in Paris last November. In fact, Uber had canceled surge pricing, and some drivers were said to be giving out free rides to frightened Parisians.