‘Feast or famine’ ride demand for Uber, Lyft drivers in Lake Tahoe
It’s been two years since the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft launched at Lake Tahoe. With seasonal shifts in demand, strict rules for driving across state lines and a relationship with local taxi companies that goes beyond friendly competition, the industry is still working to find its footing in the basin.
Meyers resident Monika Taboada has been driving for Uber and Lyft since they arrived in Lake Tahoe in December 2015 and July 2016, respectively. She’s now a community associate for both companies and runs a Facebook group for Lake Tahoe drivers with nearly 200 members.
Taboada takes care of her children during the day, then launches the apps and starts taking rides when her husband gets home from work.
“Even with a marketing background, I found that the pay scale is so different here in Tahoe that I do better driving Uber and Lyft and not having to pay for childcare and work when I want to do it,” explained Taboada.
Taboada is one of 65 residents licensed in South Lake Tahoe to operate as an Uber or Lyft driver. Most do both.
Though the city of South Lake Tahoe required a city business license for ride-sharing drivers to operate here — including out-of-town drivers coming up during busy weekends — legislation passed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October changed that. Under the new law, which went into effect in January, drivers only need a license in the jurisdiction where they live to operate anywhere within California.
“We have a huge problem with Sacramento drivers coming up,” said Taboada. “Sacramento has some of the lowest rates because they have a ton of drivers. So when they are slow they all want to come up here.”
Due to the seasonality of South Lake Tahoe, the fares for Uber and Lyft are slightly higher up the hill to offset the slow season for drivers, according to Taboada.
“I can spot them a mile away because their car is clear and shiny, it doesn’t have four-wheel drive and they are tailgating,” said Taboada. “But it’s just part of the industry. People come from all over the Bay Are to drive in San Francisco. It happens everywhere.”
Across the state line, Virginia City resident Clay Mitchell is one of a handful of Uber and Lyft drivers operating on the Nevada side of the lake.
Mitchell started driving for Uber and Lyft in Reno a little over two years ago before deciding to focus his attention on Lake Tahoe. He estimates that fewer than five Nevada drivers actually live up at the lake — the rest drive up from Reno or Carson.
“Driving in Tahoe, at least on the Nevada side, is either feast or famine,” said Mitchell. “The reason is the state line. If I pick up someone at the casinos and take them to the Keys, then I have a 10-minute plus ride before I can get my next ride request.”
Nevada drivers can drop off passengers to California, but they cannot pick them up there. The same goes for California drivers with drop-offs in Nevada.
But even with drivers coming up during the busy seasons, it’s still not enough to meet the demand coming through the apps on the Nevada side of the lake.
“I’ve told Uber that there is a problem on the Nevada side because so many people make requests, they are not fulfilled because there aren’t enough drivers and the prices surge up,” explained Mitchell.
But on both the California and Nevada side, taxicab companies are in agreement: There are too many Uber and Lyft drivers.
Jose Yanez Aldaz, owner of Crown Taxi in South Lake Tahoe, said his ridership has dropped 40 percent since the arrival of the ride-sharing companies. He’s had to reduce his drivers from eight to five.
“The biggest thing that taxi company owners are trying to get locals to understand about Uber and Lyft is that even though they’re local drivers, the money is not staying in the community,” said Yanez Aldaz.
Frank Walsh, the general manager of Sunshine Yellow Cab, estimates that the ride-sharing companies have caused his business to drop by 20 percent. The company is licensed to drive in both California and Nevada.
“With ridesharing what concerns me is the fairness and safety to the passengers involved,” said Walsh, pointing to a lack of oversight in vehicle maintenance and out-of-town drivers not familiar with the roads or driving in snow.
“Our dollars are staying in this community,” said Walsh. Sunshine Yellow Cab also donates rides to and from the Warm Room and Christmas Cheer food pantry.
According to the ride-sharing drivers, cab drivers’ feelings about the perceived intrusion of Uber and Lyft on the community can translate to aggressive behavior on the road.
“Unfortunately they hate us and they love to make it clear, especially to the female drivers. There are several cab drivers in particular — we know who they are — who will flip us off or try to run us off the road. It’s very scary,” said Taboada. “I ignore them. I smile and wave. I have a dash cam and that protects me tremendously.”
Both Taboada and Mitchell said they’ve heard similar experiences from other drivers around the lake.
The cab companies insist these claims are not true.
IMPACT ON PUBLIC TRANSIT?
Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have long marketed their services as a complement to public transportation and a means of getting fewer cars on the streets. But recent studies suggest that in some cities the apps are pulling passengers off of buses, subways, bicycles and sidewalks and creating more congestion.
One study surveyed 944 ride-sharing passengers in the Boston area over four weeks in late 2017. Almost six in 10 said they would have used public transportation, walked, biked or forgone the trip if the services weren’t available.
Additional studies reported on by the Associated Press found that taxis and ride-sharing vehicles are significantly contributing to congestions in Manhattan, and on a typical weekday in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft drivers make more than 17,000 trip — roughly 12 times the number of taxi trips — in the most-congested parts of the city.
But in Lake Tahoe, it’s difficult to determine if ride-sharing vehicles are reducing the use of public transit and contributing to congestion on the roads. After all, the tourist-dependent region receives roughly 24 million visitors a year and 10 million vehicles.
“Transit wise, whatever we know [about Uber and Lyft] is anecdotal,” said Carl Hasty, district manager for Tahoe Transportation District. “I don’t know how significant their impact is.”
However, Hasty noted that ride-sharing services could be responsible for a drop in car rentals up at the lake.
“We are seeing fewer cars rented up here. We don’t know why, but maybe that’s a reasonable assumption that it has to do with Uber and Lyft,” said Hasty. “We do know that travel’s back, tourism’s back and traffic’s back.”