Uber offers free rides out of Sydney after surging during siege

Uber is offering users free rides out of the Sydney CBD after coming under fire for increasing its surge pricing as the city's financial district goes into lockdown due to an armed hostage siege at a store in Sydney's Martin Place.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor and  AAP , Contributor on

Uber is offering users free rides out of the Sydney CBD, and refunding rides. This comes after its surge pricing policy saw it reportedly charge up to four times its usual rate in surge pricing, with AU$100 minimum charge in the city, as Sydney's financial district goes into lockdown during an armed hostage siege at a store in Martin Place.

The company claims it uses surge pricing as a tool to provide more cars on the road during the busiest times. In July, Uber agreed to put a limit on its increased rates.

Uber Sydney confirmed the fare increase in the city in a Twitter update, stating: "We are all concerned with events in CBD. Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area."

At the time of writing, ZDNet could confirm that Uber was charging up to 2.6 times its usual fare, with a minimum fare of AU$65 for the Sydney CBD.

(Image: Screenshot of Uber app by ZDNet)

A spokesperson for Uber told ZDNet that the automatic fare increase is linked only to the increase in user demand in the area, and that it will not charge a commission on any rides out of the Sydney CBD during the day.

"Fares automatically increase when demand exceeds available supply, to encourage more drivers to come online or leave other suburbs to come pick up passengers in areas of high demand. We are keeping partners advised about road closures," the spokesperson said. "Uber will not charge a commission on any rides out of the CBD today, with 100 percent of every fare picking up from CBD going to drivers getting people home safely."

The spokesperson also indicated that Uber's pricing algorithms are set to be capped during disasters and relevant states of emergency. For each market, the state of emergency price will be set after the three highest-priced, non-emergency days of the preceding two months.

"This policy intends to strike the careful balance between the goal of transportation availability with community expectations of affordability during disasters," said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in a separate statement.

The company announced at 2.15pm AEDST that it is offering users free rides out of the city, and would refund rides for those who had already used its service.

"Uber Sydney will be providing free rides out of the CBD to help Sydneysiders get home safely," the company said. "Our thoughts are with those affected and the NSW Police Force.We are in the process of refunding rides."

(Image: Screenshot of Uber Sydney Twitter feed by ZDNet)

It is believed that up to 50 people have been taken hostage in the siege at the Lindt chocolate cafe in central Sydney.

"The best information is that there's like 40 or 50 people in there, customers and employees included. That's a rough figure," Lindt Australia CEO Steve Loane told News Corp Australia.

Shop customers and workers could been seen through the cafe windows with their arms in the air while the Sydney Opera House was evacuated following reports of a suspicious package.

Parts of the CBD are in lockdown, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has met with the national security committee of Cabinet since the siege began just before 10am AEDST on Monday.

"This is obviously a deeply concerning incident, but all Australians should be reassured that our law-enforcement and security agencies are well trained and equipped and are responding in a thorough and professional manner," Abbott said.

The area around the cafe has been cordoned off to about 150 metres, with specialist police operations officers poised outside the cafe.

Macquarie Radio has reported that an alleged gunman has told negotiators that he has "devices all over the city" and wants to "speak with the prime minister live on radio".

Leave Uber alone, says Senator Leyonhjelm

State governments should stop fining Uber drivers for not having a taxi licence, Senator David Leyonhjelm said on Sunday.

The Victorian Taxi Services Commission has fined Uber drivers up to AU$1,700 in recent months.

The Liberal Democratic Party senator said Uber is the best thing to happen to public transport in years.

"Surely our public servants have better things to do than fine people who are making an honest living," Senator Leyonhjelm said.

"Perhaps rather than hassling these people, our state governments could look at what they could do to make our taxi services more competitive, such as deregulating fees, removing regulations, and reducing insurance costs."

The Victoria Taxi Services Commission declined to comment.

Cabs to block Paris roads in Uber protest

Parisian taxi drivers have vowed to block roads leading into the French capital on Monday to protest against the court's refusal to ban urban ride-sharing service UberPop.

Like their counterparts in large cities across the globe, Parisian taxi drivers are fed up with what they see as unfair competition from Uber's popular smartphone taxi service.

UberPop, which uses non-professional drivers with their own cars to take on passengers at budget rates, has 160,000 users in France, according to the company.

A commercial court in Paris on Friday ruled that a new law, making it harder for Uber drivers to solicit business, could not be enforced until the government has published full details of the restrictions.

"It's the straw that breaks the camel's back," said Ibrahima Sylla, president of France Taxis, whose organisation has joined several others in calling for the early morning protest on Monday.

The organisation has urged taxi drivers to gather at the northern Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport and the southern Orly airport at 5am local time before slowly converging on the city in a bid to block arterial highways.

"This is a fight against Uber. We're fed up. Allowing UberPop means leaving 57,000 French taxis high and dry, and thus 57,000 families. And that is out of the question," said Sylla.

The Federation of Independent Parisian Taxis for its part wrote on Facebook: "It is about saying no to injustice, no to illegal work."

Uber is battling lawsuits in a string of countries for unfair competition and rising anger over drivers who are not properly vetted and beholden to no one.

New Delhi last week banned Uber from operating in the Indian capital after a passenger accused one of its drivers of rape.

Thailand, the Netherlands, and Spain have ruled it illegal, and Denmark and Norway have filed complaints against the company. Brussels also announced on Friday that it plans to file a complaint, while California and Oregan have launched legal action.

The company argued in France that banning its service violates the practice of free enterprise and the principle of equality.

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