A nationwide shortage of employees in one industry is hitting particularly close to home in Palm Springs, leaving police, business owners and city officials scratching their heads as they look for a solution.
The problem? Drivers for Uber and Lyft are choosing not to work for the ridesharing companies after more than a year of dramatic declines in travel cut into their pay. Others are simply refusing to hop back into their cars with strangers, fearful of transmission of COVID-19 from unvaccinated passengers. Many have also switched to delivering only food and groceries.
“Right now it’s a mini debacle for Uber and Lyft in terms of driver shortages and surge pricing throughout the US,” one financial analyst said in a report published earlier this month, adding that the availability of drivers is roughly 40 percent below the need.
In Palm Springs, that statistic is painfully obvious. Passengers at Palm Springs International Airport frequently report wait times for a ride are a half-hour or longer. Patrons spilling out of downtown restaurants and bars late at night often can’t find a ride back to homes, hotels, and vacation rentals.
“It’s a national issue that started with COVID,” Davis Meyer, director of partnership at the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Tuesday during a regular meeting of Main Street Palm Springs. “It’s exceptionally bad in California. The companies are offering incentives and bonuses to help get more drivers. They are doing everything they can to bring drivers on.”
Until more drivers are lured back, however, the shortage will affect more than just stranded passengers. Palm Springs Police Captain Mike Kovaleff said officers are frequently redirected downtown from other parts of the city to address fights that erupt between bar patrons who congregate while waiting for rides that often don’t arrive.
“We’re having a very hard time getting people rides at end of the night,” Kovaleff explained to Main Street members. “Particularly if they have been consuming alcohol. The bars are doing a great job trying to help. The last thing we want is a bunch of people getting into their own cars and driving. But they get upset with each other and fights are spilling over into the [nearby] parking structure.”
Many in the audience Tuesday morning credited police with preventing the situation from getting worse. Still, Kovaleff pointed out that no matter how well police do their jobs, it leaves the city vulnerable when multiple units respond to a single site.
“We have 94 square miles to cover and if I have all my officers downtown it leaves the rest of the city uncovered,” he explained. “You have two bars next to each other. So we have a centralized issue, which helps somewhat but also pushes everyone together.
“Getting people out of there quicker, on public transport of some sort, is ideal.”
One solution might be the return of the Buzz Bus, a free trolley that ran downtown Thursday through Sunday evenings, stopping near many of the city’s hotels. That service is on hold, however, due to the pandemic. Until it returns, and unless rideshare drivers step up, there may be nothing anyone can do.
“The reality is, getting taxi drivers to return to work, as well as Lyft and Uber drivers, is a real challenge,” said Al Jones, who recently served as chair of the city’s Airport Commission.