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Grousing about Uber’s surge pricing

Waking up on a weekend morning in a fog and regretting a bar tab is not so uncommon.

But waking up and regretting the price of the ride home is a new twist on a big night out. Some customers in Baltimore who took rides home using Uber Technologies Inc. on Halloween, or early the following morning, found the cost of the ride was way more than they were expecting.

Uber, a company that allows customers to reserve a ride using an app on their smartphone, raised the ire of some customers by charging up to nine times its normal rates last weekend. The “surge” pricing received international news media attention when a Baltimore woman and City Paper freelancer named Gabrielle Wathen used crowd-funding to raise money to cover the $362 she was charged for a 20-minute ride home early Saturday morning.

Other users took to social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, to complain about the rates they were charged for rides home. But the carping on social media has not resulted in many official complaints with Maryland’s Public Service Commission.

According to the commission, which regulates state utilities and taxi services, it has only received two complaints related to higher-than-expected fares. The first complaint was from a user who was charged $90 for a 3.7-mile ride. The second complaint was from a rider charged $450 because of surge pricing 9.8 times the normal rate.

The cheapest ride provided by Uber, its UberX service, charges customers in Baltimore a base fare of $1.75, plus 15 cents a minute and a $1.30 per mile with a minimum fare of $4. UberBlack, which picks up riders in luxury automobiles, charges a $7 base fare, 40 cents a minute, $3.25 a mile and a minimum fare of $15.

Although there is not a running meter in Uber driver’s vehicles and a receipt is emailed after a ride is complete, when a customer requests a ride the app alerts them to the fact that there is a surge in pricing. But customers have to use a tool in the app to receive an estimate for how much the ride will cost.

In August, the commission ruled that Uber’s UberBlack and UberSUV services were common carriers that required a motor carrier permit from the state. The commission is expected to shortly release new regulations that the commission argues will protect the public’s interest. The commission stopped short of listing all of Uber’s products as common carriers. The lowest end ride, UberX, was not named a common carrier.

But even supporters of the company raised concerns about the prices that were charged users last weekend.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, who introduced a bill that would have created a “transportation network services” category preventing ride-sharing companies from being labeled common carriers under the state’s regulatory framework, said he finds the surge pricing alarming. He said although he wants to create an environment where these businesses can thrive, the surge pricing episodes also show the need for regulation.

“It’s highly concerning. One of the positive aspects of Uber … one of the consumer protection mechanisms is you would see the estimated fare before you took the ride, and if that didn’t happen it’s very concerning,” Ferguson said.

The Maryland Attorney General’s office will not be investigating the issue because the state does not have a price gouging law, spokesman Alan Brody said.

Uber did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.