Uber is offering free rides for everyone going out of the Sydney central business district, where law enforcement authorities are in a standoff against a hostage-taking crisis, but not before Uber botched up its PR yet again.
Outrage flared over the Internet earlier on Monday when Uber users reported sky-high prices for Uber rides out of Martin Place, where the crisis is currently enfolding. Some users said the ride-sharing app showed minimum prices as high as $65, or more than two times the regular price, but others said the minimum price quadrupled to as much as $100. Others, still, said prices from the Sydney CBD to the airport a few blocks away rose from the normal rate of $100 to as much as $145 to $185.
The surge in Uber prices, the company explains, is due to the app's algorithm, which automatically raised prices for areas where demand is high to encourage more drivers to head to the area. The price surging feature kicks in during peak times, when customers are willing to pay up to two times the normal prices to get a ride on a busy Saturday night or on Halloween, for instance. On New Year's Eve, price surging can ramp up the prices up to more than three times the normal costs.
"We are all concerned with the events happening in Sydney," Uber says in a blog post. "Uber Sydney will be providing free rides out of CBD to help Sydneysiders get home safely. Our thoughts are with those affected and the NSW Police Force."
Uber also announced that it will be providing refunds for all riders who had to pay the higher charges. The company says anyone who wants to receive their refund can simply write an email to email@example.com. However, the app will still show the quadrupled rates to encourage drivers to pick up passengers in the area. Uber says it will shoulder the cost of fares.
— Uber Sydney (@Uber_Sydney) December 15, 2014
Earlier this year, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that Uber agreed to put price caps on fare costs during "abnormal disruptions of the market," such as what is taking place on Martin Place. The move, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said at the time, "intends to strike the careful balance between the goal of transportation availability with community expectations of affordability during disasters."
Uber reportedly plans to adopt the same policy for the entire United States, but it is not clear whether the company has struck a similar deal in Australia.
At present, not much is known about the hostage-taker in downtown Sydney, except he has taken at least 13 hostages. The assailant's motives are currently unknown, although he has demanded to speak with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and to have the flag of the Islamic State (ISIS) delivered to the café where the siege is taking place. A black and white flag with Arabic writing that translates into a declaration of faith was earlier seen being held up to the café's windows by the hostages.
"There is no deity of worship but Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of God," the black flag says.