Super Bowl

Can Uber unsnarl Super Bowl traffic?

Welcome to the Uber Super Bowl
Welcome to the Uber Super Bowl

Even on a good day, traffic between San Francisco and Santa Clara is bad, but Super Bowl week has made it apocalyptically horrible.

Road closures around Super Bowl City at the Embarcadero in San Francisco — worsened by the occasional protest — has made driving pointless at times. And come Sunday, 70,000 people will make their way south to Levi's Stadium and have to navigate a security zone stretching for miles.

Some local companies have chipped in to help. Google is providing its fleet of 100 employee shuttles to the Super Bowl host committee (and the buses will run on "renewable diesel fuel").

Noah Berger | Reuters

Uber — the multibillion-dollar San Francisco start-up which pioneered the sharing economy — hopes to profit from the Super Bowl as people decide to hail a ride to the stadium Sunday.

Uber-ing to a big game is not new. What is new is that Uber is officially part of the Super Bowl.

"This is our hometown, and the Super Bowl is here," said Amy Friedlander Hoffman, head of business development at Uber. "Six years ago we didn't exist."

Uber paid the Super Bowl host committee to be the official ride-hailing app for Sunday's game, though the amount was less than the reported $500,000, the company said. (It wouldn't disclose the amount.) In exchange, Uber is being given access to a parking lot that's a 15-minute walk from the Levi's Stadium. This is where drivers will be cycled through for pick up and drop off of passengers.

There will also be a "rider lounge" where customers can grab some water and recharge their phones. Meantime, this week Uber also has a special pickup and drop-off area near Super Bowl City in San Francisco.

Friedlander Hoffman said there are more than 40,000 Uber drivers in the Bay Area who may choose to work Sunday. Longtime driver Ben Ahmedod will be one of them. "There's going to be huge demand, that's for sure."

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Uber has some experience doing big events before, mostly concerts like Coachella. However, the Super Bowl's logistics "have their own complexities," said Friedlander Hoffman.

"It's always the unknowns, right? It's just about the ability to be able to react to that and work with the police and work with the Super Bowl staff and make sure that we're creating a seamless, great experience."

It is almost certain Uber prices will surge for the game. It's all based on the company's dynamic pricing algorithm matching supply and demand. Ahmedod said he's seen the price jump five times higher than normal for past large events. Friedlander Hoffman said riders can cut the cost by using Uber's fare-splitting or carpool services.

Uber is also kicking up its sponsorship profile with special Super Bowl activities, like whisking away riders to play flag football with Joe Montana, or bringing along puppies to cuddle as a tie-in with the Puppy Bowl.

But none of that matters if Sunday's big test backfires. The Observer reports a group of Uber drivers upset with fare cuts are vowing to "shut down" the Super Bowl on Sunday in a protest, claiming "thousands" of drivers from Los Angeles plan to join them.

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Ahmedod will not be among them. He hopes to profit from Sunday's traffic, and he likes the concept of a single parking lot for Uber drivers. "It's extremely important to have a pickup location for clients," he said. "When there's no set pickup location, that makes our job harder. Just trying to find your client, it could take you upwards of 30 minutes (for them) to navigate their way to where you're parked."

With so many Uber drivers in one place and so many riders summoning them at the same time when the game ends, the traditional matching system on the app will have one extra step: Riders will be texted the parking space number where their driver is waiting. Friedlander Hoffman said it's a system it's used before to keep everything moving. "It's great to have something close by, but if you can't get in and out easily then it doesn't really matter," she said. How close will Lyft drivers get to the stadium on Sunday?

She laughed. "A lot farther."