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Papal Pandemonium: How Uber Drivers Are Bracing For The Pope’s Visit

Uber drivers are steeling themselves for the traffic congestion and surge pricing that is sure to result from the Pope’s U.S. tour.

Papal Pandemonium: How Uber Drivers Are Bracing For The Pope’s Visit
[Photo: Flickr user Jojo Nicdao]

As Pope Francis zips through American cities this week, millions are keenly tracking his every move, breathlessly waiting to take a selfie with him and yearning to get a glimpse of him in his Popemobile. Among the Pope watchers are swarms of Uber drivers, who have been strategizing for weeks on how to deal with the Papal pandemonium that will inevitably unfold.

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The official word from Uber’s headquarters is that the company cannot forecast what will happen with the pricing algorithm–they don’t even know for sure whether surge pricing will go into effect at all. “We can’t predict whether it will and to what level it may be in effect, though we do expect a large influx of riders and will do our best to meet that demand and be as reliable as possible,” Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett told the Washington Post.

Surge pricing was the subject of avid discussion on Uber driver message boards. Some drivers worry that the streets will be flooded with Uber drivers, and that this excess supply will bring down the prices. Others expressed concern that residents would stay off the streets altogether, heeding warnings from city authorities about expected traffic congestion.

Among the Uber drivers I spoke with, the question was not whether surge pricing would go into effect, but exactly how high the rates would go. But not all Uber drivers see sky-high surge pricing as a good thing. These rates come at a cost. Drivers expect to get caught in epic traffic jams, giving them less control over their schedules; they will also have to be up to speed on road closures and detours. Angsty riders may even take out their wrath on drivers by giving them poor ratings.

Uber drivers have their own unique strategies for tackling disruptions of this magnitude. Richard, for instance, an UberX driver in Washington, D.C., has a day job in an orchestra. (The drivers I interviewed for this article asked that I change their names, for fear of jeopardizing their positions.) While he likes being able to drive when he’s not performing or rehearsing, getting caught in a massive traffic jam could significantly disrupt his schedule, so he has opted to skip the streets during the day and only drive at night while the Pope is in town. “I’m on the graveyard shift,” he told me. “I don’t really mind. It’s fun to see the colorful things that people in this town do when they’ve been bar hopping for a few hours.”

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He’s not the only one steering clear of the streets. Many drivers interviewed by Philadelphia Magazine said that they wouldn’t be caught dead dealing with the logistical nightmare of driving while the Pope was in town.

But a segment of Uber drivers are downright excited about the papal chaos. Jeff, a full-time UberX driver in Washington, D.C., has been planning for the Pope’s visit for a week. To prepare, he outfitted his car with an iPad and a tablet computer so that he and his riders could watch shows while stuck in traffic. He also stocked up on water bottles to keep customers hydrated and snacks to keep blood sugar levels high. “When Taylor Swift was in town, I made $90 a ride for three separate rides,” he explained. “The Pope is way bigger than Taylor Swift.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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