Car-sharing service Uber has come under fire on social media after appearing to endorse fare increases in central Sydney as residents were attempting to evacuate the area after a siege in a cafe.
As authorities cleared the area following hostages being taken at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in the Central Business District (CBD) of the city, many turned to the private hire firm for a way out, but were met with prices four times the normal rate – reaching $100 (€66.11) at one point.
The firm used its official Twitter account to make users aware of the situation, however the language used appeared to some to suggest that the service had manually chosen to increase prices.
“We are all concerned with events in CBD. Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area,” it said in a tweet from the official Uber Sydney account
This led to a backlash online, with some replies questioning the increase, while one user labelled the move “a shameful disgrace”.
This prompted the official account to again speak out, this time saying that journeys for users leaving the central Sydney would now be free. A statement was then posted on the Uber blog reiterating the change.
“We are all concerned with the events happening in Sydney. Uber Sydney will be providing free rides out of the CBD to help Sydneysiders get home safely. Our thoughts are with those affected and the NSW Police Force,” it said.
“We are in the process of refunding rides. If you have been charged during these hours leaving the CBD please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that surge pricing is used to encourage more drivers to come online and pick up passengers from the area.”
Though this did not offer clarification on the initial fare increases, an Uber spokesman told the Press Association that this happened automatically because of demand in the area.
“Surge pricing is algorithmic and responded automatically to the large increase in demand for Uber rides out of the CBD. As soon as we became aware of the situation, we capped it and made all rides free to people leaving Sydney’s CBD. Uber is paying for these rides. If riders got charged surge pricing earlier, we will refund it.
“Surge pricing is only in effect to encourage more drivers on to the road to pick up passengers from the CBD, but riders will not be charged.”
Earlier this year the service announced a partnership with the American Red Cross, and has previously said it would cap fares affected by the algorithm during emergency situations.
Chief executive Travis Kalanick said in July: “This policy intends to strike the careful balance between the goal of transportation availability with community expectations of affordability during disasters.”
However, users in New York were hit were by eight-fold increases during severe snowstorms in the city earlier this month.
Publicity problems have hit the firm in the past, with services in Delhi suspended after a passenger claimed she was raped by her driver.
In the US an executive was also heard suggesting that he would hire researchers to “dig up dirt” on hostile journalists.
He later apologised for the comments. A legal row is also ongoing in France over the legality of the ride-hailing service in the country.