Why Uber jacked up prices during Sydney hostage crisis

Uber, the taxi app service, is criticized for hiking prices in Sydney's central business district, where people are trying to evacuate as a gunman holds hostages in a cafe.

Bastien Inzaurralde/AP
UberPOP driver Anthony Loussala-Dubreas, 24, of Paris, turns on his smartphone in his car in Paris, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. A French court on Friday ordered Uber to withdraw from its mobile app to French users "all mention suggesting it is legal" for Uber's drivers to act like taxis — that is, driving around and waiting for clients. But the court did not ban the popular ride-hailing service.

The latest in an onslaught of worldwide criticism of taxi-booking service Uber comes amid the hostage crisis in Sydney.

A surge in fares in the city's central business district – up to four times normal rates, according to the BBC – is being called out as tasteless at time of desperation there.

One customer told Mashable.com he'd been quoted A$145-185 (US$119 - $152) for a journey from Sydney's CBD to the airport - a 13-mile journey that would normally cost about A$40-70 (US$33-$58) depending on the time of day.

The app operates on an algorithm that changes prices based on demand for the service in an area. Police have sealed off the swath of city blocks surrounding the Lindt cafe in Sydney where at least one gunman is holding about a dozen employees and customers, and ordered the public away from the scene. Uber's algorithm responded to the rise in demand as designed and prices soared.

But the company said it is now ferrying people out of the city for free, and explained the surge in prices in a blogpost Sunday.

"We are all concerned with the events happening in Sydney," the company said. "Uber Sydney will be providing free rides out of the CBD to help Sydneysiders get home safely."

The cab service explained it was using surge pricing to encourage more drivers into the area.

The company also said it was in the process of refunding anyone who had been charged during the hours of the siege.

Uber put out messages Sunday and Monday on its Twitter account to explain the pricing and publicize the free ride service.

The bout of criticism comes amid a slew of stories casting a negative light on the quickly expanding taxi app service.

Taxi drivers in France are protesting the firm by blocking roads around Paris and at airports, the BBC reported, a demonstration following the interior ministry's decision to ban the company's car-pooling service, UberPop. Taxi protests in other cities have local governments banning, legislating, and endorsing Uber.

Last week, accusations that an Uber driver raped a woman in New Delhi led the service to suspend operation there and raised anew questions about the company's driver screening process.

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