How to avoid Uber's surge pricing: Science explains how to beat the algorithm

Emma Haslett
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A moment later, he realised he'd have to pay 3.3x the average fare... (Source: Getty)

Uber may have changed our lives (for the better or worse, depending on which side of the "black cab" argument you're on), but there's no denying when that surge pricing screen pops up, it's a disappointment.

Now scientists in the US have worked out a way to beat it. Troubled by what they call "Uber's lack of transparency", Christo Wilson, a professor at Northeastern University, investigated how the pricing structure works.

He found that in New York, "two users standing just blocks apart may unknowingly receive dramatically different surge prices".

"In Times Square, for example... 20 per cent of the time, customers can save 50 per cent or more by being in an adjacent surge area".

Read more: How to get the cheapest possible NYE Uber fare

First of all, the scientists worked out how the company calculates pricing, "pretending" to be people at 43 different locations throughout San Francisco and Manhattan over a four-week period.

By crunching the data they got back, they tracked supply and demand, finding that Uber divides the cities it services into "discrete surge areas". Boston has nine area, while Manhattan has 16 and London has 19 - although Wilson said how Uber divided the cities up isn't completely clear.

Boston has nine "discreet surge areas" (Source: Northeastern University)

Wilson's solution in short? "Wait five minutes, or walk a few short blocks, and the surge notification may disappear."

Although he pointed out that it's impossible to know where or how far to walk if you don't have a detailed surge map to hand, he promised he's working on it.

"We have a website for it, and eventually we'll have a page about the paper that's accessible to the public. We are developing surge maps, and will put all of them there, too."

Watch this space...

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