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It’s been taking longer to get an Uber in Boston since the virus hit

Company blames ban on surge pricing during COVID-19 emergency

It has become more difficult to summon ride-hail vehicles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has become more difficult to summon ride-hail vehicles during the COVID-19 pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It’s taking longer to get an Uber in the COVID-19 era.

While business for ride-hailing services is way down during the pandemic, those still using them in Greater Boston say they’ve been experiencing longer wait times for their pickups.

“I live right near North Station. So usually I’ll request and they’ll be there before I get down to the lobby,” said Ben Allen, a management consultant.

But for a recent trip to catch a flight at Logan International Airport, Allen waited 45 minutes for the driver, he said. “I was sweating it.”

It has been a common lament lately on social media, with some Boston-area riders questioning why they wait up to an hour for a ride or are not allowed to book a ride at all. Jim Murray, a Boston sports radio personality, recently tweeted a public service announcement “of sorts” about the issue. “You’ll be in Boston and your closest available ride will be in like, Billerica,” he wrote.

Just by checking the apps, riders can see the issue is common. On a recent weekday morning, for example, Uber showed no drivers available in the heart of the Financial District. Prior to the pandemic, that area was typically so flooded with drivers that it was rare to wait more than a couple of minutes.

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Uber says it has seen a big uptick in Boston wait times due to a shortage of drivers. But it cited a cause that may not garner much sympathy from riders: It’s not allowed to raise prices during the pandemic.

Uber’s controversial “surge pricing” policy boosts prices when the number of people requesting rides and those providing them are out of balance. While the company says this helps ensure that more drivers hit the road, it has also been criticized as a form of price gouging — especially during events such as MBTA breakdowns that prompt people to flood the company’s system with requests.

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But ride-hail companies in Massachusetts are banned from using surge pricing during states of emergency, one of which was declared in March as the virus began to spread. Now, Uber wants the state to change that rule.

“Surge pricing ensures that riders — especially essential workers who need to get around — have access to affordable and reliable transportation and that drivers can earn more on trips during busy times,” spokeswoman Alix Anfang said. “We hope to work toward a solution with the state that allows for a reasonable amount of surge pricing during the continued state of emergency.”

Lyft declined to say whether its wait times are longer in Boston, or whether the phenomenon is unique to the region. But its app also indicates riders are waiting longer than they may have in the past. If there are delays, Lyft said, surge pricing could be one of “many factors.”

The surge-pricing ban has been enacted during previous Massachusetts emergencies, which are typically short-term events like snowstorms, though Uber used to flout the rules. In 2019, it agreed to pay a fine of nearly $1 million for raising prices during a snow emergency.

Now, four months into the coronavirus emergency, the company said the ban on surge pricing is having a clear impact on ride-hailing. However, it declined to provide data comparing wait times during the pandemic to those in earlier periods.

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It did share comparisons of wait times in Boston and two other cities in the Northeast that do not ban surge pricing, New York and Philadelphia.

It takes about nine minutes longer to get a ride in Boston than in those two cities, according to the company’s data. Boston riders are also about five times as likely to have no drivers available nearby, and 40 percent less likely to complete the bookings they initiate. These metrics were all roughly equal in the three cities before the pandemic, Uber said.

Some riders have theorized there are other reasons for a driver shortage: Some may have stopped driving to avoid the coronavirus, especially because drivers are now eligible for unemployment benefits, or are focusing more on food deliveries, which require less interaction with the public.

But that wouldn’t explain the differences between Boston and the other cities, since the surge pricing rule is the biggest variable, Anfang said.

Uber said it hopes surge pricing will be allowed at “a capped amount at a reasonable level” and pointed to an executive order in Nebraska that gave the companies a waiver from similar rules there.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which regulates ride-hailing services, said any change in policy would require a change in state law and noted that Governor Charlie Baker has proposed legislation that would give the department some flexibility on surge pricing during states of emergency.

The House of Representatives in March passed a transportation package that would allow that flexibility; the Senate has not yet taken it up.

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Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.