Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Uber, Lyft, and delivery-on-demand apps put unnecessary drivers on the road during winter weather—and we all end up paying for it.
Forget teens going door-to-door offering to shovel out your car or driveway for some extra bucks on a snow-day off school. For those getting a taste of late-winter wrath in the Northeast today, there are, of course, apps for such services: Dial up one in Pittsburgh or New York or beyond and a driver will appear, presto, to rescue your car for you.
But why dig out and drive at all? Don’t sweat gubernatorial declarations of emergency and difficult road conditions from Virginia to Maine. You can get your ma po tofu delivered, snow be damned. For a premium, any convenience can be had.
Snowstorms like the one that thwomped the East Coast on Monday night are emergencies, full stop. Winter weather represents a dangerous threat. Yet technology puts in our hands the tools to go about the day as if it were 75, sunny, and Saturday—as if water had not taken solid form in the sky and fallen to earth.
There is a snowflake crisis in America. Far too many people think that their needs are so special that crisis conditions simply do not apply to them. In wintery weather, they think their interests justify the enormous costs that their decisions impose on the public, whether it be a shared ride to a boozy #snowpocalypse brunch or a delivery to cater a Netflix and literally chill sesh.
But Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, and all the other ride-hailing and delivery-on-demand services can be as lethal a wintery mix ingredient as snow, slush, and despair. Putting drivers on the road unnecessarily means contributing to the conditions that make icy weather so dangerous. People who have no business driving take to the roads, tempted by surging fees—where applicable. (Last night, plenty of Lyft drivers were available to ferry me to a cherry blossom–themed bar, and the rates weren’t surging. It’s the same today, though as of early afternoon, few streets in my neighborhood have been plowed.)
According to the Federal Highway Administration, weather factors caused 22 percent of all vehicle crashes. Not fire-tornadoes or volcanic eruptions but simply slick pavement. Rain is responsible for most of these weather-related crashes, but 42 percent of them can be blamed on rain’s malevolent cousins: ice, sleet, and snow.
That’s why New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and dozens of other mayors along the Northeast corridor urged residents to stay off the roads in order to clear the way for maintenance crews and first-responders. Soon these advisories may need to include technology companies such as Uber, whose Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh aimed to deploy unmanned, self-driving vehicles in wintry Western Pennsylvania weather, in order to test the robot’s snow-driving skills.
Now, here is the big to-be-sure paragraph, to address the objections of people from Upstate New York and other climes where life can’t grind to a halt for months on end when there’s snow on the ground: To be sure, life can’t grind to a halt for months on end when there’s snow on the ground in places such as Upstate New York. Special rules obtain for the residents of Hoth.
But most of the people driving or hailing cars in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., aren’t the flinty residents of Buffalo or Rochester. They’re people who don’t own snow tires and don’t have dozens of words to describe different kinds of snow. And most Uber and Seamless and Postmates drivers on the road aren’t taking nurses to hospitals or delivering meals to DOT crews. They are taking idiots to coffeeshops where they can telework from home away from home.
A note on surge pricing: Users love to grumble about ride-hailers jacking up rates during difficult snow conditions. Uber told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the service may set its surge fees to the fourth-highest surge day within the last couple months. People ought to reserve their complaints for the fact that putting drivers on the road unnecessarily is just one more externality that ride-hailing dumps on cities. Every time an Uber or Lyft driver gets stuck in the snow, crashes into something or someone, or simply makes it harder for the heroes who do need to leave their homes, we’re all paying.
Just work from home! Or rather, don’t work from home: Throw on The Empire Strikes Back and make some kind of flurry-themed drink and congratulate yourself on the foresight you had to buy snow-day snacks. Invite your (geographically) closest friends over. Go play in the snow, or huddle in fear of it. But when city officials ask people to stay off the roads, they’re talking about you and your app.