Uber’s Surge Pricing Once Again Makes People Mad

A death on the Red Line gave Uber's critics cause to complain.

The internet, already less than enamored with Uber’s surge pricing system, found new reason to express anger at the private car app’s pricing scheme after a tragedy on the MBTA Red Line Thursday night.

The surge pricing system has long been a controversial aspect of Uber’s business plan. In times of high demand, the app applies a multiplier to the price of an Uber ride. In the early days, users who didn’t understand the surge system found themselves with outrageous bills for seemingly short rides. Since then, the app has made it nearly impossible for users to ignore surge pricing, requiring that they type in the multiplier number as a confirmation that they understand how much they are about to pay for a car ride.

Still, discontent with Uber’s system persists. What Uber casts as an efficient way to allocate scarce cars to the users most willing to pay for them, others call it price gouging, casting it as Uber digging into customers’ pockets when they’re most vulnerable (a.k.a. standing outside a closed bar in a Sexy Pokemon outfit on Halloween). Last week, the Better Business Bureau gave Uber an F rating, reportedly in part because of the surge pricing system.

That brings us to Thursday when, horribly, a woman was struck and killed by a Red Line train at Downtown Crossing, leading to huge backups on the T and crowds looking for a way home. Uber, of course, was in high demand, and so the app added a multiplier to its prices.

 Those who see sinister intentions in Uber’s surge pricing found this a particularly galling cause for raising fares. Some took to Twitter. Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin documented the debate in a series of retweets.

The suggestion is that Uber’s surge pricing is somehow even more offensive when the reason for high demand is tragic. But maybe that misrepresents the nature of Uber’s surge pricing. The one thing Uber and its critics would agree on is that Uber isn’t including human nature in its pricing scheme. The point is that by making its pricing multiplier a matter of supply and demand, it takes subjective human concerns out of the equation. Uber is priced where the market wants it, no matter why the market is seeking it out. When that uptick comes for unhappy reasons, it accentuates just how mechanical Uber’s plan can be. But it doesn’t reveal something we didn’t already know.