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Romano: I think Uber is Latin for gouging (Or why I should apologize to cabs)

A woman walks past the Uber company logo in San Francisco, Calif., in this 2014 file photo. [AP photo]
A woman walks past the Uber company logo in San Francisco, Calif., in this 2014 file photo. [AP photo]
Published Jun. 27, 2017

Let's talk about regulations.

Specifically, let's talk about the battles we've seen locally, and nationally, that have pitted the taxi industry against rideshare companies such as Uber.

So I was in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday night for a U2 concert at the stadium where the New England Patriots play.

(First aside: Yes, I saw U2 at Raymond James Stadium two weeks ago. But my best friend and I have gotten together to see U2 play often over the past 35 years. I never claimed to be particularly bright.)

If you're not familiar with Foxborough, imagine what it would be like to have the Buccaneers play their home games in Wauchula. Except with less charm, and worse ingress and egress.

Because parking in Foxborough is a nightmare and because the game plan called for several rounds of drinks, we decided it made more sense to splurge on Uber for the 22-mile trip from my friend's house.

Now, if you're not terribly familiar with Uber, you should know that there are no set prices. You don't pay 30 cents for every one-eighth mile, or whatever the rates say on the side of a cab door.

Uber pricing is based on supply and demand. Good ol' democratic concept, right?

This meant the trip home would cost significantly more than the ride to the stadium because there would be a ton of people looking for rides late at night in the middle of nowhere at the exact same time.

With that in mind, we opted to skip out on the last 20 minutes of the show to make the incredibly long walk up and down stairs, past hotels and restaurants, through two tunnels and, I may be mistaken, past Harvard, to reach the Uber pickup lot.

(Second aside: Why fly 1,000 miles and leave early? Good question. I've never done it before, and I've flown around the country to see dozens of concerts. To be honest, this tour is U2 at its worst. The shows have lacked spontaneity and passion. Essentially, the band is making a cash grab.)

We used our Uber app to call for a car as we made the trek toward the lot. The price we got was about $45. Perfect. That's just what we paid for the trip out there.

Except, after a few minutes, our Uber driver canceled. Tried again. Now the price was $58. And, once again, the driver canceled minutes later. By the time we got to the lot, there were already people waiting. Now, the price was up to $88.

This time, I called the Uber driver to make sure he was going to come. He assured me he would. Ten minutes later, I called again. He said he was stuck in traffic but on his way. This scene played out two more times over the next 20 minutes until the Uber app said our driver was one minute away from the lot.

And then he canceled.

When I called his number, I was redirected to an automated Uber recording. By now, the Uber lot has gotten pretty crowded.

When I used the app to call for another car, the price had jumped to $246.

There were Uber representatives in the lot, and I (ahem) calmly inquired about this. The response? The drivers canceled the earlier fares because they knew Uber pricing would go up (and so would driver profits) if they just waited for more people to come out of the concert and call for cars.

And this is where regulations come in.

A taxi company could never get away with this. Why? Because most municipalities have strict laws about refusing fares and price gouging when it comes to taxi companies.

But because Uber has fought regulations, it can undercut cab prices during slow times, and then commit larceny on its customers during peak periods.

(Third aside: We walked back to a hotel and asked if they could call us a cab. I wasn't listening too closely, but they said something about cabs not being available until two hours after a show.)

I've always had mixed feelings about the Uber-taxi battles in city council and county commission meetings. While I like the idea of the free market at work, I never thought it was fair to overburden cab companies while giving Uber a free pass.

My feelings are mixed no more.

While it sounds all red-white-and-blue for politicians to talk about deregulating industries, there are reasons regulations were originally put in place. They inspect our food, they make our airlines safer, they make our jobs fairer, they protect our environment.

And, yes, they keep us from getting ripped off.

I don't mind paying more for service during peak periods. What I do mind is the purposeful manipulation of the market to cheat me out of money.

Our first $45 fare canceled on us about 10:55 p.m. After 35 minutes and two more cancellations, the price had risen nearly 600 percent.

We waited until 1:30 a.m. before the price got back down to $77 and we got in a car.

There were about two dozen people still waiting on their own Uber.