Earlier this year, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick — and the company he heads — came under fire when news hit that he had accepted a post on President Trump’s economic advisory council. More than 200,000 Uber users critical of the Trump administration responded by deleting their accounts. Many then decided to start anew with other ride-hailing services, such as Lyft, which vowed to donate $1 million to the ACLU over the next four years.
Despite that setback, business boomed for Uber at Coachella, as it has since 2014, when the service officially arrived in the Palm Springs area just in time for festival season. Since then, different kinds of horror stories have ensued. Festival attendees looking to hitch a ride home from Coachella using the ride-hail service have to convene at a makeshift parking compound located at the far northeastern corner of one of the festival's most distant parking lots, which resembles nothing so much as the waiting room of an urgent care clinic. It’s likely crowded, even in the middle of the night. Most patrons cough, sweat and/or sleep while waiting to hear their names or numbers called. Those still conscious struggle to hop on the Wi-Fi. Add some mood lighting, queue a couple different “Shape of You” remixes, and voilà — welcome to Coachella’s "Uber Lounge."
I’m willing to bet that this tent, alongside first aid and lost and found, hosts some of the lowest spirits of the weekend. At peak hours of the night, the lounge is packed with people trying to order rides on their phones. Once a rider successfully secures an en route car, he receives a PIN. He then must show that PIN to an Uber employee once the car arrives. This is Uber’s way of facilitating the process to make sure that the operation doesn’t turn into a free-for-all, with riders hopping into the wrong cars.
The Uber Lounge is the only certified spot where drivers can drop off or pick up their riders, and the mile-plus hike there, for lack of a better term, blows. Shelling out another $10 for one of the pedicabs that loop back and forth from the lounge to the festival gates is a popular choice. But anyone looking to leave the festival via Uber has to get there before requesting a lift. Rides ordered inside the festival won’t be processed.
By the first night of Coachella 2016, Elene Perry would have her own horror story to share. She stayed at the festival with two friends until all acts finished, then started toward the infamous Uber Lounge to catch a ride back to their lodgings in Cathedral City, about 20 miles from the festival grounds.
Perry recalls requesting a ride for almost half an hour with no success, a product of too many riders and not enough drivers. She overheard that others were having better luck in getting rides through UberBLACK, several luxurious steps up from UberX.
“I don’t remember what the surge [pricing] was, I just remember being like, ‘I don’t give a shit how much it costs, we’re getting back home,’” she says.
Only then was she able to snag a car. Next, it was time to head to the loading zone, which she says resembled the floor of a stock exchange more than a taxi queue.
“There were so many people just crushed up against the fence, and these poor Uber staffers were like, ‘Everyone just needs to back up until you have a car,’” Perry says. “We just pushed our way to the front and showed them my phone, like, ‘We have one! We have one!’”
Perry and her friends tumbled into their spacious SUV and made for their condo. They sat in traffic for almost an hour, mostly at a standstill outside the festival grounds. People walked on both sides of the road, attempting to hitchhike. Multiple groups flagged down Perry’s Uber, offering to pay the driver to collect them, too.
Once back at her condo, Perry checked the receipt: $250. The next two days of the festival, they drove and parked in a lot on-site.
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This past Friday night, fares reached more than seven times the normal rate through surge pricing, attributed to exceedingly high demand without an adequate number of drivers. At nearly 1 a.m., attendees looking to take an Uber back to their lodgings — regardless of proximity — were looking at a minimum price of $175.
So for those who are not camping on-site or staying somewhere that offers shuttles, and do not plan on being able to operate heavy machinery by the end of the evening, what’s the alternative? Coachella Valley locals picked up on this problem years ago, and thus renegade ride services were born.
Before each festival season, the local Craigslist listings are littered with offers of Coachella and Stagecoach rides. Customers can dictate the times that they want to be picked up and dropped off each day in advance. Some drivers use their own SUVs or sedans, while others offer something along the lines of a Ford Econoline van. Those selections (as well as proximity to the festival) dictate the price of the ride, though they start around $10 per person, per ride. Another bonus: These drivers drop you off inside the parent dropoff area — much closer than Uber drivers can get.
If you’re feeling adventurous or spent all of your extra cash on crab fries, going with a rogue ride service, though risky, may be your best bet. Skipping out on the ethically fraught Uber keeps both the budget and the conscience in check — and could spare you a hellish wait at the end of your night.