LAS VEGAS — When Delane and Greg Boog visited Las Vegas last month, they had to wait for nearly one hour at McCarran International Airport for a ride-share to the resort corridor.
Last week, the Michigan couple again approached the line, bracing for another extended delay starting their stay at the Park MGM on the Strip. Several dozen people were already in line at the Terminal 1 ride-sharing pickup area.
“It says it’s about a 20-minute wait, which doesn’t seem that bad,” Delane Boog told the Las Vegas Sun.
Depending on the day, time and location, longer-than-normal wait times for Uber, Lyft and taxi rides in Las Vegas have become common since visitation started to increase this spring after business closures and capacity limitations spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
For Las Vegas, which prides itself on service and a positive visitor experience, it’s a phenomenon that Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom said could continue through the summer and negatively affect visitors’ reactions to their stay. The commission is the governing body of the Strip.
“I’ve seen a lot of complaints lately,” Segerblom said. “I know people are also having to sometimes get an upscale Uber or Lyft in order to get a vehicle. We need to get more drivers, and it might take a few months to get caught up.”
“Part of what makes Las Vegas great is that it’s so simple,” Segerblom added. "The airport is close to everything, and we’ve had a great transportation system. If we lost that permanently, it would be a disaster.”
Las Vegas could be a popular destination this summer as COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift around the country. Domestic travelers may head here because international travel is still mostly dormant.
The Strip is back to pre-pandemic numbers with packed restaurants, droves of pedestrians along Las Vegas Boulevard, and hotel occupancies rising like summertime desert temperatures. Capacity limits at venues and mask requirements have been lifted for vaccinated individuals.
Ride-sharing services seem to have been caught on their heels.
“Demand has returned quicker than drivers returning to the road, which has led to some of the issues that we’ve been seeing,” said Javi Correoso, an Uber spokesman. “As people continue to become vaccinated, we think that trend will continue for a city that attracts a lot of out-of-town visitors."
The problem boils down to supply and demand: When visitors weren’t going out during the pandemic, most drivers weren’t working. Now, people are going out again, and not enough drivers have returned to the roads.
Industry officials attribute the shortage to several factors, including some drivers still collecting jobless benefits and others not ready to share a car with strangers during a public health crisis.
Representatives from Uber and Lyft pointed to a pandemic “state of emergency” rule put in place by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak as the main culprit.
Until Nevada lifted a ban on Friday, “transportation network companies” operating in the state could not charge fares “in excess of the base rate on file on the date of the emergency.” The surge pricing ban was implemented to offer people who needed rides predictable costs but, by lifting it, the governor said he hoped to decrease wait times.
Ride-share companies had lobbied for months to lift the ban. In a May 10 letter to the authority, Lyft regulatory compliance manager Elizabeth Gallagher said, “Fares collected by (transportation network companies) in excess of the base rate may be distributed to drivers throughout the region in the form of driver bonuses and incentives designated to get drivers on the road during periods of high demand.”
Segerblom and others had wondered whether the companies should simply offer more base pay to drivers in an effort to attract more workers, but Correoso said it’s not that simple.
He said many drivers simply have returned to the workforce because they’re worried about contracting COVID-19, though Uber drivers and riders are still required to wear masks.
“A lot of drivers haven’t returned because they don’t feel comfortable having someone in the car," he said. "As more people become vaccinated, drivers are starting to return, but we’re not where we were pre-pandemic.”
Correoso added that Uber was providing cash bonuses to drivers to return. A driver in Las Vegas averaging 20 hours on the road per week was taking home just under $30 per hour, he said.
With visitor volumes increasing by the month, however, the driver workforce just isn’t keeping up.
In March, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, more than 2.2 million people visited the city, a 45% increase from February. April visitation totals were expected to eclipse March totals.
Along with the ride-sharing companies, Las Vegas taxi providers are also finding it difficult to get drivers on the road.
JD Decker, interim director for the Nevada Taxi Authority, said it would take time to prime the industry after being basically dormant for months.
“We are seeing issues getting drivers in cars, but companies are trying to hire,” Decker said. “I think we’re probably suffering the worst of it right now. After being in isolation for so long, people are coming back to Las Vegas, but the taxi companies haven’t caught up yet.”
How long the waits will remain is anyone’s guess.
Decker said complaints about wait times have trickled in to the regulatory authority. He’s also heard from Las Vegas casino officials who have inquired about what could possibly be done to remedy the situation.
“It’s taking longer to get rides, but visitors to Las Vegas do tend to find their way,” Decker said. “There’s extra money going to drivers who take riders to and from McCarran, and some companies are paying some of the permitting fees for cars. The companies know there’s an issue, and they’re trying to see what works to help fix it.”
Memorial Day weekend was expected to kick off a busy summer for leisure travel, and it appeared possible the driver shortage could get worse.
In April, according to figures from the authority, just under 897,000 taxi trips were recorded.
That was well up from the 12,200 trips recorded in April 2020 during the pandemic shutdown, but far short of the 1.27 million rides the 16 regulated cab companies tallied in April 2019.
Along with the taxi and ride-sharing companies, Las Vegas also has public transportation options.
The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada provides an airport bus line that can connect passengers from a terminal near the McCarran Rent-A-Car Center with the RTC “Deuce on the Strip” line on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Francis Julien, deputy commission CEO, said the ride-share and taxi driver issues underscore the importance of public transportation in Las Vegas.
He said cameras placed at bus stops monitor crowd levels. If too many riders are waiting, Julien said, the RTC adds vehicles.
During recent Fridays and Saturdays, the double-decker buses ran every eight minutes along the Strip, Julien said.
“People don’t have to wait 30 minutes,” he said. “The increases (in riders) that we’ve seen the past four or five months, we’re attributing basically all of that to tourists.”
Julien said mobile phone ride-hailers can purchase an RTC bus ticket without having to leave the Uber or Lyft app they’re using.
Still, not everybody has a desire to ride a city bus, even a cool-looking double-decker offering scenic views.
Many drivers have gotten used to the convenience of ride-sharing apps in recent years. And it’s not always difficult to hail an Uber or Lyft. Much depends on time and place.
At the airport, a few steps from the Boogs, Timothy Esposito and Kaylenne McClure, both from Los Angeles, waited for a Lyft ride that McClure’s phone showed would arrive in a few minutes.
“We know things are opening up now, so we knew there was a chance that we’d have to wait longer,” McClure said. “But this isn’t bad at all.”
Segerblom said longer wait times are a free market problem that probably needs a free market solution.
“Before Uber and Lyft, we had a great taxi system for the Strip, though it wasn’t great if you weren’t on the Strip,” Segerblom said.
“When Uber and Lyft came in, they basically decimated the cab industry ... and now we’re paying for it," he said. "My thought is that we need to maybe try to limit Uber and Lyft so we can keep our taxi and bus system viable, just in case something happens.”