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Maybe you thought the lack of a cap on Uber surges during this summer’s Metro SafeTrack was a pain. Or maybe, like many passengers (and drivers), you’re not wild about the ride service’s promotion of its carpool option, “UberPOOL,” a balm for high surge prices and new metro inconveniences during rush hour.
But on weekends in D.C. this summer there may be a new “x factor” threatening to slowly drive down the supply of drivers: the emergence of an Uber market along the boozy boardwalks of Ocean City, Md. The service arrived last summer in the beach town 150 miles from D.C. It started out with just a few drivers and faced the usual pushback from municipal taxi companies not accustomed to late-night competition for drunk beach revelers. This year, its driver base is growing.
An Uber representative told Washington City Paper that allowing drivers to work while on vacation has long been an attractive benefit offered to the its contractor workforce.
But D.C. driver Jack Sorto explained a 2x surge in Northwest on a sunny Friday afternoon before Memorial Day by describing a mini-exodus of his driver buddies to Ocean City. There, he says, they can make as much as $600 in one night—that’s four figures for a three-day weekend—for just a few quick boardwalk-to-hotel car trips. Back in D.C., making that kind of money takes more miles, traffic, and trouble.
“It can be a $6-per-minute fare and turn out to be $35 per trip without much travel,” Sorto says. He’s part of a group of 25 drivers who communicate and share their data—what fares and surges they’re seeing, what incentives Uber is offering drivers back in the city—through the smartphone messaging app WhatsApp. Sorto and eight of his driver friends rent a house near Casino at Ocean Downs. He knows of a few other similar groups, too.
Uber insists the District’s driver fleet is about 30,000 strong and only a “very small proportion” of folks are splitting come Friday. But a thread on an Uber driver message board posted after Memorial Day weekend seems to corroborate Sorto and his buddies’ experience:
“Anyone Driving in Ocean City Maryland last weekend?” the thread asked.
“That was my Saturday. Best one-day total yet. Thursday night I started at 12:30 a.m. when I drove into town work for two hours and made $120.”
“Very nice payout.”
“I drove in Ocean City Maryland last weekend. It seems like they had the surge caped (sic) at 4.9 but it was often there. I did pretty well I had to camp to make it worth my while though LOL wish I had a place to crash there that was affordable.”
The company changes incentives for drivers in real time to account for places and times passengers will want to be and drivers don’t. It could be an extra $5 per trip to drive between 8 and 9 a.m. on weekdays near Potomac Avenue and Stadium-Armory Metro stations during Phase II of SafeTrack, say, or a guaranteed surge attached to a fare to drive from the city out to Merriweather Post Pavilion or Wolf Trap, where concertgoers get desperate for designated drivers.
When it comes to the decision to head out to Ocean City for the weekend or to stay, Sorto and his friends might spread out, with some sticking around the city to see how business might be and what incentives the company posts, which can change by the hour. Those who head to the beach will post their fares, and the others will wait for word about whether driving four hours away for business is worth it.
“It’s a gamble. They wait to see what the incentive is, and then they try their luck at the beach,” Sorto says. Then, if supply dwindles back in town, Uber will start to add incentives there. “It’s win-win, in a way.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law new Uber and Lyft regulations last year, which will require background checks and vehicle registration for Uber drivers. There’s also potential for a state public service commission takeover of background checks after a trial period—something that’s confounding D.C. drivers who were used to dropping off and picking up in Maryland freely if licensed in D.C. (though separate registration has long been required if picking up in Virginia with a D.C. or Maryland license). Once the state’s regulatory status under the new law is sorted out, the party may wind down, Sorto admits.
Recently, he says he’s noticed Uber starting to “squeeze” incentives tighter on weekends, which would make a beach sojourn an increasingly attractive proposition. But it will only last so long: “Once word gets out, you’re gonna start seeing higher numbers going [to Ocean City], which will be counterproductive.”