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Uber riders fume over 'surge pricing'

Users of the Uber car service experienced some sticker shock this weekend as they tried to hail a private car with their smartphone.

The company has had a "surge pricing" policy for over a year — increasing rates during periods of high demand — but some Baltimore users reported seeing the policy in effect locally for the first time this weekend.

Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian said the policy has been in place for the Baltimore region since Uber launched here in January, but this weekend was particually busy for its drivers because of the weather. Hourdajian was looking into how many times Uber has used surge pricing in Baltimore.

On Friday night for example, a ride from Calvert and Centre streets to 36th Street and Falls Road in Hampden cost double or $20. But riders in other cities like New York were quoted rates up to 7 times than normal fare because of weather conditions. Miffed customers posted screen shots of bills on Twitter — some more than $100 for short rides.

The company said the policy encourages more drivers to hit the road to meet the increased demand. But many customers — who were warned of the rate increase before accepting the ride — aren't convinced and took to social media to express their displeasure.

"Not sure I how I feel about it, especially since I have been championing them since they started." said Jonathan Anthes, an art director who works in Mount Washington and uses the service at least once a week.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stood by the policy of surge pricing on Twitter this weekend.

"We put reliability and maximizing the number of trips above everything else. Even to our detriment in public sphere," he wrote on Twitter.

Anthes said he prefers Uber over traditional taxis because he doesn't have to pay with cash but now may avoid Uber during peak times. (Uber handles payment by credit card via the smart phone app).

Uber has offered hirable sedans through an app in Baltimore since January, and has run into trouble with regulators in Maryland and other parts of the country over bans on unlicensed taxi services.

Maryland's Public Service Commission is considering whether to require Uber to become licensed. The agency's staff said in May that regulations "were not drafted with a smart phone application in mind" but "can still be reasonably applied to the companies that use these applications."

Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

timswift@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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