As South Lake Tahoe residents evacuated the area to avoid the Caldor Fire—which has already consumed hundreds of thousands of acres--reports began to trickle in that accused Lyft of engaging in price gouging.
According to SFGate, Lyft was charging $1,300 to $1,500 for XL trips from Heavenly Valley Lodge, a holiday resort, to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. SFGate reported that the trip typically costs $200 according to Lyft's and Uber’s own fare estimators. Another screenshot that was shared online showed similar results: Lyft’s regular ride-hail cost $900 and the XL trip cost over $1500.
After screenshots of the eye-popping prices circulated widely on social media, Lyft reduced the price to $230, slightly above the typical range.
“When ride requests outpace the number of drivers on the road, prime time pricing -- elevated fares designed to get more drivers to high-demand areas -- is automatically enabled,” a Lyft spokesperson told Motherboard. “When we realized how the evacuation order was affecting Lyft prices, we immediately implemented a cap and ultimately suspended prime time pricing. We are currently in the process of reviewing and adjusting fares for certain riders who were impacted in the region.”
Uber, which reportedly did not have drivers available in the area at the time, told Motherboard in a statement that nonetheless it capped surge pricing some time after learning of the disaster.
“Uber has a Global Security team that identifies public states of emergency,” said Uber spokesperson Noah Edwardsen. “A cap was put in place in areas surrounding the Caldor fire on Monday and a second cap was enacted in areas surrounding the Tamarack fire on Tuesday. This blog post provides additional information on how Uber responds to disasters.”
This sort of thing shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with ride-hail apps. While app-based ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft have hiked fares while decoupling the increases from driver pay during the pandemic, they’ve also had a history of using surge pricing during disasters, whether it’s been power outages, a hostage crisis, or snow storms.
In fact, until this May, surge pricing was banned in the state of Nevada so as to explicitly avoid price gouging during the pandemic, when people may need to move around or have something delivered in quarantine.