“At first, it was almost like Uber didn’t exist anymore,” she said. “Since then, I’m just desensitized. I’ll wear my mask, I’ll roll the windows down, I won’t touch anything, I’ll be good.”
Miltiades is representative of the varied choices consumers are making around the country and the world amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Analysts say that the ride-hail industry may take months or even years to start to recover, but companies already are seeing ridership vary according to what cities are reopening, recovering or reimposing restrictions.
The ride-hail industry is experiencing “a tale of 10,000 cities,” Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said during a call with analysts last week. Markets such as Hong Kong and New Zealand, which were hailed as early success stories in fighting the pandemic, exceeded their pre-pandemic ridership. But U.S. ridership has continued to suffer. Uber said gross bookings on rides were down 75 percent in the three months through June.
Lyft, the other major U.S. ride-hail service, declined to comment on the impact of the pandemic on its business, citing the release of its quarterly earnings report this week. The company has previously said its April ridership was down 75 percent from April 2019.
Recovery has been most prominent in cities such as New York, which bore the strongest early impacts of the U.S. outbreak. But ridership in West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles continues to be steeply down more than four months into the disruptions. Uber did not provide city-by-city breakdowns of the ongoing impact or recovery during its financial earnings report last Thursday.
The continuing coronavirus restrictions in many major cities continue to be a drag on Uber, which said in a recent financial filing that it derived nearly a quarter of its gross ride bookings last year from just five metropolitan areas: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, London and the San Francisco Bay area.
“When travel restrictions lift, we know that mobility trips rebound,” Khosrowshahi said.
States including California, Washington and New York were among the first to adopt stay-at-home orders amid surges in coronavirus cases, aiming to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus and covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. Other states, including Georgia, Texas and Arizona, waited to institute restrictions and then relaxed those restrictions earlier. New York state was worst hit, recording about 30,000 covid-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic and surpassing 400,000 cases of coronavirus infection. Neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut also were hard-hit.
“This is where they felt the full brunt of mobility lockdowns,” said Mark Mahaney, a managing director at RBC Capital Markets who covers Internet research.
More recently, however, states such as Texas and Arizona, and major cities such as Los Angeles, have experienced new surges in coronavirus cases that were blamed at least partially on the rush to reopen. And some of that is reflected in ridership with Uber and Lyft.
In Uber’s May update, as the company noted weeks of steady growth after the initial pandemic restrictions, reopenings in Georgia and Texas were key sources of optimism. Those states saw 43 percent and 50 percent week-on-week growth, respectively, as they eased their restrictions.
The pandemic also has led to fewer drivers providing service, and to long wait times and higher fares, as discounts have dried up. Many drivers say they are staying home rather than risk being exposed, and are not sure they’ll return even after the crisis ends.
Jolene Furdek, of Plano, Tex., said she drove for Uber from around 2017 right up until the pandemic began. With the pandemic still in full force, she doesn’t think the job is worth the risk.
“You see people down here that are still going to large events; they’re still going to church, they’re still going to funerals, they’re doing all this kind of stuff, which is not smart behavior,” she said. “There are people that still think this is a hoax. ... It’s a problem.”
The companies have taken their own precautions to try to assure riders and drivers that the ride experience is safe. In May, they announced policies requiring drivers and passengers to wear masks, ensure cleanliness and reduce crowding on their rides. Cars had to be regularly cleaned, and drivers and passengers had to adhere to checklists verifying that they did not display any symptoms, for example. Front passenger seats were placed off limits to encourage social distancing, meaning the typical Uber had 25 percent less capacity. In addition, pooled trips, where passengers going in the same direction could split a ride, were suspended.
Meanwhile, some regular riders say that they’re confident in the safety measures and would take Uber if there was anywhere to go but that continuing restrictions mean they do not need the service.
Katie Pilot, of Hermosa Beach, Calif., used to take Uber two or three times per week, she said — but she hasn’t used the service since January.
“I’m not afraid of getting in an Uber,” said Pilot, who said she had used use the app to avoid having to find parking or when she was going out for drinks. “I have nowhere to go where I warrant the usage.”
That sentiment is common among passengers, who say they’d be quick to resume riding if cities opened up. But the failure to contain the virus and disease — particularly in the United States — has some analysts worried that ride-hailing may take far longer than expected to recover.
“The question is how long until we get a vaccination?” said Ben Black, consumer Internet research analyst at the firm Evercore ISI. “Before you have a vaccination, things aren’t going to be back to normal.”
Uber executives said the service’s recovery is just a matter of cities loosening their restrictions. Khosrowshahi said the company has not identified any larger patterns from the pandemic that would permanently change the business. And the encouraging numbers from New Zealand and Hong Kong had convinced him it was merely a matter of time before riders returned, he said.
There are glimmers of upturn in business in U.S. cities where activity has resumed.
Roy Neill, 40, who works in business development, said he had recently used Lyft around 20 times while visiting relatives in Miami. Fear of the virus was not a hurdle.
“When the restaurants are closed, all of the things are not operating, there’s really no reason to leave your house,” he said. “I’m of the kind of mind-set that you can put your mask on, you have your hand sanitizer in your pocket, but we’ve gotta support businesses — our economy cannot just stop.”
In the meantime, Uber is banking on its food delivery business.
“We’ve essentially built a second Uber in under three years,” Khosrowshahi said on the call, noting that Uber’s delivery business had become as large as the ride business was when he joined the company in 2017.