New Yorkers can’t get taxis amid shortage, Uber price hikes

It could be a long, brutal summer for New Yorkers who need a ride.

Emily Wood, a 39-year-old ad executive in the West Village, was late for a doctor visit late last month and couldn’t find a taxi on Sixth Avenue at West 11th Street. So she opened the Uber app and punched in a five-minute trip to West 25th Street.

Uber wanted an eye-popping $39 — so Wood hoofed the 14 blocks in her running sneakers. When the doctor told Wood her blood pressure was high, she had to explain.

“The prices have just been astronomical,” Wood said. “I’m going to plan ahead and I’m going to allow more time to take the subway and walk.”

Manhattan ad executive Emily Wood says she recently walked 14 blocks rather than pay Uber a $39 fare.

The problem may get worse before it gets better. As offices reopen and tourists begin to trickle in this summer, industry experts say passengers will face a dire shortage of taxicabs and surging prices for Uber and Lyft rides. That’s because drivers who largely stopped working during the pandemic remain reluctant to come back, instead taking other jobs or collecting unemployment.

“The summer could be really crazy,” Bruce Schaller, a transportation expert and former city transit official, told the Post.

According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, there were 4,900 yellow cabs cruising the city in April. While that’s up slightly from 4,700 in March — it’s less than half the 11,400 cabs that were available in February 2020, before lockdowns.

Indeed, one Queens taxi dispatcher who asked not to be named said that about 50 percent of his company’s drivers are currently on the road, up from 15 percent or 20 percent when the pandemic first hit. He hopes to get back to full capacity by year’s end, but obstacles remain — particularly the $300-a-week federal sweetener to jobless benefits in New York.

“Receiving unemployment has certainly diminished their desire to return,” the owner said. “I think that when the city begins to open up there will be more drivers.”

In the meantime, fares on Uber and Lyft are skyrocketing.

A hand holding a smartphone with the Uber app
One NYC Uber driver told The Post that he’s bringing in as much as $40 per hour.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Mike Gunzelman, a 30-year-old TV and radio host , gripes that Uber’s prices are a “sham.” Two weeks ago, the app charged him $16 to go 7 blocks down Second Avenue on the Upper East Side. He likewise complains that Ubers are lately taking longer to arrive.

“I understand surge pricing, but it seems like surge pricing is 24 hours a day now, and that’s not how it was,” Gunzelman told The Post. “Now that COVID is in the rear view mirror, it’s very frustrating.”

Uber is spending $250 million on temporary bonuses to get more drivers on the road, spokesman Harry Hartfield said, adding that New York drivers are currently making about $38 per hour plus tips.

A sign post with Lyft and Uber logos
Lyft and Uber acknowledge fares have increased in price but are quiet about exactly how much of the additional amount is being passed along to drivers.
REUTERS

Hartfield wouldn’t say how that compares to previous rates, but Jonathan Vega, a 30-year-old Uber driver from Queens, told The Post that he’s bringing in as much as $40 per hour, compared with $25 an hour earlier this year. 

“From August until February, it was atrocious. There was no money,” Vega said. “There’s more money to be made now because I think a lot of drivers are still — I’m not sure if they’re still hesitant or still collecting unemployment.” 

Hartfield declined to say what percentage of Uber’s surging prices are being passed on to drivers, saying, “It’s somewhat of a complicated algorithm.” A spokesperson for Lyft said the company has also seen “big increases” in demand but would not provide details on pricing or driver pay. 

A taxi in front of Radio City Music Hall
Some speculate that the phasing-out of the extra $300 unemployment benefit will lure cabbies back to work.
Getty Images

“If I’m making $11 more per ride, I can only imagine how much more the rider is paying,” said Vega. 

While the next three months promise to be pricey for passengers, the surges will likely come crashing to a halt when the federal unemployment benefits expire in September, predicts Matthew Daus, a former chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. That, combined with the city’s reopening, he said, could spark a sharp reversal in which driver supply outstrips demand — as was the case before the pandemic.

“We’re going to have ‘taximageddon’ in the fall,” Daus warned. “I fear that there’s going to be a ton of vehicles in the streets searching for work and there’s not going to be enough work until the holidays at least.”

In the meantime, driving a taxi in the city can be surreal of late, with queues at typically cab-mobbed airports nearly empty, says Augustine Tang, a 36-year-old cabbie from Brooklyn. He never used to get calls asking him to come pick up passengers at JFK Airport, but now fields such requests three or four times each week.

Closeup of window with Uber and Lyft driver decals
Uber and Lyft drivers will eventually face more serious competition from cabbies.
Education Images/Universal Image

“There’s a shortage in the airports and a shortage in the city,” he said.

Ford executive Sunny Madra wrote in a recent Twitter thread that he spent 20 minutes trying to hail a yellow cab at JFK before calling an Uber. His ride to Midtown Manhattan cost $249 — barely less than his $262 flight from California to New York. 

Exorbitant prices are driving some customers away from ride-sharing apps despite the past year’s surge in crime on the subway, including a bloody hammer attack on the 2 train last month.

“If it comes to it, is it worth spending $35 for Uber or worth spending $3 for the subway with the safety issues?” said Gunzelman, the radio host. “I’d rather take my chances on the subway than try to get an Uber.”