This fall marked the dawn of a new era of transportation for Cornell students. No longer does a trip to the mall require elaborate planning, conflicting bus routes and juggling between approximate arrival and departure times.
In April, Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing companies announced that they will be extending their services into upstate New York after the approval of the 2018 budget by Governor Andrew Cuomo. These companies began a trial period starting in July, before students returned to campus.
With the surge of Cornellians returning since mid-August and some embarking on Ithaca’s hills for the first time, students and Ithacans alike share mixed reactions of the new transportation options.
During the summer, fewer Uber drivers were based in Ithaca, said Shirley Kabir ’20, due to the fewer number of students on campus than during the academic year. Despite the scarcity of drivers, the price of rides was not insurmountable.
”During the summer, it was only $7 to get around locally,” she said of the affordability of Uber’s summer trial period.
However, with the start of school, Ithaca’s cohort of drivers grew.
Uber driver Thomas Harris said that he just recently transferred to Ithaca from Buffalo on August 25 due to the “high demand for Uber in the area, caused by the start of school.”
“I serve a mixture of customers, ranging from students to the general Ithaca population,” Harris said. “I came out here because there are so many potential customers here, but not enough drivers.”
This increase of potential customers came with its setbacks. Depending on demand, prices can fluctuate, according to Sneha Kumar ’20, who, just before the semester, paid $35 to travel from the airport to her apartment in Collegetown.
“During the summer, Uber prices were very cheap,” Kumar said. “But just before the semester started, at the airport, it was expensive, since so many students were coming back to campus. On the app, it even said, ‘Because of high demand, we’re going to charge you $35.’ Now that there are so many people, Uber hiked up the prices.”
Despite concerns of high demand increasing Uber prices, Kabir remained optimistic.
“If people are really in a rush, people will opt for Uber, since TCAT buses are not reliable all the time, especially at night,” she said “For example, buses might not run, but Uber will run. TCAT also takes much longer, and you might have to transfer from many buses, while Uber is very simple to use.”
Harris said that the reliability of ridesharing apps will compensate for its potentially steep prices, because no taxi will be “as convenient or reliable as Uber,” he said.
“It’s [the] 21st century — everything’s digital,” Harris said. “Students have phones in their hand, they can just download the app, hit a button and boom, your ride is here.”
Yet complaints about price do not appear to be consistent across different ridesharing platforms. June Xia ’18 said that her Lyft ride from the Commons to West Campus during the first week of classes was reasonably priced, with an eight-minute wait for the driver.
“I think it [came out to] somewhere in the 9 to 13 dollar range for [our party of three,]” she said. “[But] it was a Wednesday evening, which I feel is a pretty low traffic time.”
Xia noted that her Lyft driver was very accommodating of specific route requests, such as additional drop-off points.
“We wanted two different drop-off points [in Collegetown and on West], and the driver was accommodating of taking the detour,” she said.
This flexibility, on top of the ability to instantly summon a ride, makes ride sharing apps an especially attractive option for students. But the fact still remains that these apps are not the cheapest transportation methods in Ithaca.
For Kumar, the option of TCAT — a free option 24/7 for freshmen and for all students after 6 p.m. — still remains.
“Even though cab prices are higher, the TCAT bus is still free, and I will always use the bus to save money,” Kumar said. “But if I’m really tired and am in a rush, I will turn to Uber.”
Despite the earlier skepticism that Uber and Lyft’s arrival will negatively affect local taxi companies, Gary Lewis, a manager for Ithaca Dispatch — an Ithaca-based cab service — said that Uber and Lyft have not been having as large an impact on his business as previously anticipated.
“Since Uber and Lyft have not been able to sign up many drivers after launching here about three months ago, they are not yet competitive with us,” he said. “A ride that would cost $12 in a cab has recently been costing $30 or $40 in an Uber or Lyft because of surge pricing.”
Lewis says that many customers have complained about Uber and Lyft’s pricing, calling it “unreasonable.” He also said that though his drivers are not allowed to drive for Uber or Lyft and Ithaca Dispatch at the same time, most of them have chosen to stay with him.
“We know how to break down the costs and have [the numbers] on how much a regular Uber or Lyft driver would make,” he said. “We spelled that out for all our drivers, and when they realize that they could make more money working for us, with a regular paycheck, they … decided to stay.”
When asked about future plans to compete against ridesharing apps, Lewis cited the efficacy of Ithaca Dispatch’s own app, RedRoute, which was founded by a group of Cornell students and implemented in 2016.
“I think we’re in good shape,” Lewis added. “We have a taxi app called RedRoute that does anything Uber or Lyft can do, and we’ve been utilizing it since before Uber and Lyft got here. We see a lot of activity on there.”
His sentiments are echoed by Rene Tsukawaki ’17, who had attempted to use the Uber app but was ultimately discouraged by surge pricing and a lack of functionality.
“I downloaded the app for the express purpose of checking out the prices when I needed a taxi, and saw that they were really high,” she said. “I think [when I last checked] there’s only one functioning Uber driver … in Ithaca, so the price is at least double the taxi fare.”
According to Tsukawaki, the 3.5 mile ride for which she was attempting to hail an Uber had cost over $20 during busy hours, a price which made her hesitate.
Surge pricing occurs when there is a momentary increase in demand for the service.
“It happens all over the country,” said Michael Maffie grad. “It is still predictive in the sense that Uber has been collecting data for now almost seven years in almost all of the major cities in the United States to try to figure out the predictive transportation patterns for consumers.”
Overall, Tsukawaki said that though the availability of the app itself is a familiar convenience, she will still choose other options for traveling to places within driving distance for the time being.
“I guess the only situations I would specifically prefer an Uber is if it were late at night,” she said. “But apparently Cornell has … a free late-night shuttle service, and I want to check that out first.”
Harris does not anticipate these ridesharing companies to go away soon.
“As long as we’re utilizing the service, as long as we keep it here, it’s presence will be permanent,” Harris said. “If we go to a different service, then obviously, Uber is going to go away.”
Xia expresses her support for these apps as well, stating that they might help students get home safely on weekends, among other things.
“Based on what I’ve heard from friends and at work, the general response to these services coming here has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’m inclined to support these services given how happy they have made everyone,” she said.
From his research, Maffie said that college towns constitute the “ideal experiments for transportation companies to model” due to their “varying populations during the predictable times of the year — summer with fewer people and the school year with many students and higher demand.”
“Allowing for this scalable labor model to guide the transportation option seems to be, at least in other college towns, a fairly effective way of meeting the changes in population through those areas,” he said. “I’ve talked to other drivers who work in other college towns and they’ve commented about the difference -— some of them will work only during the school year or only when school is in session and they will have other side jobs during the summer because it doesn’t pay nearly as well when there aren’t enough customers. If Cornell is like those other college towns, which seems reasonable to infer, it seems likely that Uber and Lyft will be around for a while.”