Why Are There So Damn Many Ubers?

The story of the ride-sharing industry over the past decade — which is, more or less, the story of Uber, trailed by Lyft and a series of also-rans — is usually told like this: The hidebound taxi industry, shielded from competition and the traditional rules of supply and demand by a long-standing regulatory regime, was suddenly and swiftly #disrupted by Uber and its copycats, which allowed anyone with a car and a cellphone to act like a cab driver. Traditional cabbies called foul, but ride-sharing services immediately became so popular that most cities were helpless to stop them, and ended up having to make their peace with them.

The obvious question: If the taxicab industry was so heavily regulated, how did Uber, with its notorious disregard for rules, break into it? The answer is different depending on the jurisdiction. But the story of how Uber emerged victorious in New York City is an interesting and mostly forgotten one — and offers a look into the mechanics of how the Internet has allowed companies to remake the way the world works while technically playing by the rules.

The old order

The idea that New York cabs have been heavily regulated isn’t wrong. The process began during the Great Depression: Jobless New Yorkers turned to driving cabs because there was no other work, but so many people did it that streets were clogged and fares plummeted below living wages. The city government decided to intervene in the market. In 1930, Mayor Jimmy Walker floated the idea of granting a single company a monopoly on taxicab service, but this proposal collapsed when it turned out that one company that might be considered for this role had given Walker a sizable “gift” of stock. Battles between independent cab drivers and employees of fleets during a 1934 strike turned violent, demonstrating how broken the system was. In 1937 the City Council passed the Haas Ordinance, which created a system of taxi medallions. Only drivers with medallions could accept curbside hails, and the drivers and their cabs had to live up to fairly strict standards and charge fares that were set by the city.

The initial number of medallions issued was set at around 16,000. As the Depression ground on, many cabbies failed to pay the $10 renewal fee, so the number of medallions in use fell to 11,787. That number stopped going down as the economy began to expand again, but no new medallions were issued until 1996 — and even then, it only agreed to issue at most a few dozen per year. The number of cabs remained fixed, and a side effect was that drivers congregated almost exclusively in the best hunting grounds for fares: Midtown and Lower Manhattan.

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The second tier

But, as all New Yorkers know, yellow cabs weren’t the only vehicle you could hire pre-Uber. There were also livery services, which the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) began licensing in the 1950s. There are several tiers of service, probably the best-known of which is the upscale “black car” service long beloved by businesspeople with expense accounts.

The TLC regulated livery services relatively lightly compared to taxicabs: There were less stringent requirements on cars and drivers, companies were freer to set their own fares, and, crucially for our story, there was no citywide limit on the number of cars. The tradeoff was that livery service drivers had to be sent on their rounds by a centralized dispatcher and couldn’t pick up curbside hails — although, as a 1990 New York Times article noted, they sometimes did so anyway in the outer boroughs, where regulators turned a blind eye because livery cars were filling an unmet need left by the restricted number of yellow cabs.

At this point, it’s worth quoting verbatim how Bruce Schaller, a consultant on taxi and vehicle-for-hire regulatory policy, describes the TLC’s legal definition of a black car, which may ring some bells:

Under TLC rules, black cars are defined as FHVs [for-hire vehicles] that operated from bases organized as either a franchise or cooperative, and where at least 90% of customers pay by a method other than cash.

The Trojan horse

Uber launched in New York City in May 2011, a little more than two years into the company’s existence. What’s interesting about the press coverage at the time is how the service was presented: not as something that will completely upend the transportation market, but rather, as the Times put it, as “a cellphone application that is aimed at making using a car service quick and painless.” The Times‘ Jenna Wortham explained that “Uber operates as a dispatch service, working with local owners of licensed private car companies.”

So there’s the answer to how Uber got onto New York’s very regulated streets: It piggybacked onto an existing regulatory framework, presenting itself as an add-on to the service already offered by licensed livery car companies. Indeed, without livery cars to serve as the thin edge of the wedge, Uber couldn’t have launched at all. The rest of New York State, governed by state rules that didn’t accommodate livery cars, was among the last places in the country to permit ride-sharing services; you couldn’t call an Uber in Buffalo or Syracuse until 2017. When Lyft attempted to launch in New York City in 2014 without going through the TLC livery car process, it found itself subject to a restraining order from the attorney general. Uber founder Travis Kalanick, by contrast, had gone to the TLC in advance to talk things out.

The letter, not the spirit

As a result of all this, the process for becoming an Uber driver in New York City is actually significantly more regulated than it is in much of the rest of the country, where you need little more than a driver’s license and a car that meets Uber’s relatively liberal requirements compared to those imposed by TLC. The pool of Uber drivers in New York has now expanded far beyond full-time livery drivers (though many livery drivers still use the app); but people who want to sign up have to jump through the legal hoops to become livery drivers themselves, getting the proper licenses and plates from the TLC. Crucially, they also have to get a “base letter” from Uber, a certification that they are, as TLC regulations require, driving a car that’s “operated from [a] base.”

This last requirement seems like the flimsiest part of the enterprise. Traditional black cars operate out of real, physical garages and are dispatched by a person who fields phone calls. An Uber “base” is entirely theoretical from the driver’s point of view. In that first Times article on Uber, Dan Ackman, a New York lawyer who works for many cabbies, says that the city could challenge Uber for failing to relay booking requests from a central office. But that’s a hammer that never fell — at least, not at first.

Rise of the machines

One of the interesting things about those initial reviews of Uber in New York is that it wasn’t clear whether the service would go beyond serving a niche clientele. Reviewers still saw it as a (costly) add-on to a black car service, a category whose position they thought they understood. For those who wanted to grab a ride in New York’s densest neighborhoods (and were lucky enough not to be racially profiled by drivers), livery cars had always been less desirable than yellow cabs, because you could get into a cab just by waving your arm, whereas you needed to call up a livery service to request a car.That’s why livery cars had never been limited by the TLC the way cabs had: Their relative undesirability meant the market kept the number of livery drivers to a reasonable level without government intervention.

A terribly overused buzzword that internet companies like to use is “frictionless,” but it’s a decent term to describe what happened next. Stripped down to its essence, the process of using Uber was the way black car services had always worked: You used a phone to make a car come to you, and you paid by credit card. As Ackman told the Times, “It’s not that different from using Google or a directory to find a car service.”

But the app made everything easier for both the driver and the passenger; GPS in particular meant the driver could home right in on you rather than having to work out where exactly you were via conversation with a dispatcher. Having your credit card on file meant you didn’t have to think about payment on every trip. Drivers didn’t hang out at the virtual “bases” like livery drivers; they cruised the streets like yellow cabs would, meaning that they were never more than a few minutes away. And as the supply of drivers expanded beyond full-time livery drivers, the Uber fares, which weren’t regulated the way yellow cab fares were, dropped. The upshot was that getting a ride with this newfangled livery service was suddenly more convenient than hailing a cab, not less.

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The genie out of the bottle

The TLC’s loose regulations for livery services had endured for decades because they worked fine for the scale of the industry as it had been. That changed very swiftly in the early ’10s thanks to Uber and other ride-hailing apps, and that’s what makes Uber in New York a typical internet story. It was only able to come onto the scene due to the existence of a system regulated by a specific set of rules; but once it arrived, it upended that system and proved that the rules were inadequate for the new order.

In recent years, the number of “livery cars” — which is what, technically, Uber and Lyft and the like are in New York City — has exploded: There are now more than 100,000 in the city, twice the number in 2013. As most people know, this has resulted in a huge pinch for traditional cabbies, who were already in a precarious situation before Uber arrived. Changes in TLC regulations in the 1970s shifted most cab drivers from being salaried employees of cab companies to being independent contractors, with predicable results for their financial stability. And the prices of medallions had been in a bubble, partly driven by financialization, rising from $250,000 at the turn of the century to more than $1 million by the early ’10s; prices have collapsed since, leading to financial ruin for many drivers and a troubling rash of suicides. Traditional black car drivers have similarly been devastated in the Uber era. And then there’s all the extra traffic, especially in the same parts of Manhattan where yellow cabs had traditionally ruled. Other than taxi-on-taxi violence, the same set of elements that had prompted the regulation of yellow cabs seemed to be back.

In 2015, Mayor de Blasio announced his intention to roll out new regulations that would specifically target ridesharing cars — which by this time were clearly a different animal from traditional livery services and needed a different set of rules. Perhaps the most important new regulation the mayor suggested was that for-hire companies with bases that handled more than 500 cars would only be able to increase their fleets by 1 percent annually.

But America in 2015 was no longer the land of FDR and the New Deal. Uber fought back, hard, deploying politically connected (and liberal) surrogates like David Plouffe and Al Sharpton, and showing customers a “de Blasio mode” on their phones where their rides would take 25 minutes to arrive if the regulation became law. De Blasio’s perennial antagonist Governor Cuomo also weighed in against him, and City Hall eventually gave up, settling for a toothless agreement for Uber to share data with the city about traffic and restrict its growth to its existing level (which was a heady 3 percent a month).

Still, the city is making another go at it today. Uber’s string of bad press over the past few years perhaps makes it more vulnerable and less sympathetic. Studies have shown that average car speeds in Manhattan are dropping, with increased traffic from ridesharing services to blame; particularly problematic is time drivers spend “deadheading,” driving around town looking for fares. The latest proposals, being pushed by Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr., involve charging drivers a $2,000 annual fee, and — in a move that might make Uber’s entire model unworkable — restricting each virtual base to 250 cars. There will be resistance, as free marketeers are already inveighing against the proposals. We’ll see how it goes.


The Ruling That Could Change New York’s Uber Landscape

Last month, the California Supreme Court took up the case of Dynamex Operations West Inc., a package delivery company that depends on a labor pool of independent contractors to drive their vehicles and make their drops. There are many such companies across the country — they’re the backbone of the logistics industry. It’s been that way for years, decades even.

But as the case adjourned a few weeks ago, the result was a decision that could change the way a lot of companies, delivery and otherwise, define their workforce: contractor or employee. And it could have massive reverberations for companies on the other side of the country here in New York, particularly one that stands at the forefront of the legendary gig economy: Uber. 

Contractors are different from regular employees in that they aren’t employees at all, although it’s easy to get confused because they “do” “work” “for” “the company.” Contractors form short- or long-term agreements with employers to do work for an agreed-upon fee or rate. They get pay statements on 1099s while most of us get W-2s. There are no benefits — no health plan, no 401k, no sick leave, no nothing.

From a company’s perspective, the situation is beneficial because it reduces or eliminates several cost burdens, thus enhancing its competitive edge in the marketplace. From a political perspective, the contractor life might sound an awful lot like freedom to your garden-variety conservative lawmaker. From a worker perspective, being an independent contractor basically sucks — though a real-life manifestation of “easy come, easy go” is not without its charms.

Previously, California determined whether workers were contractors or employees by using something called the Borello test. Named for a 1989 ruling by the same court, the test was a multi-question, nuanced survey/litany that took into account many factors concerning the worker’s role, the company’s needs, the extent to which the employer has control over the worker’s performance, and so on. It’s heavy stuff, commensurate with an issue that affects millions of lives, and billions in commerce, in a state that some metrics rank as the world’s fifth-largest economy. 

The new ruling essentially scraps the old matrix of deep and deliberative questions and simplifies it with a three-pronged inquiry that boils down to: What happens to your company if these workers just disappeared? Do you still have a company? Can you still conduct business? Can you pay your light bill? Do you even exist?

Which brings us to us, one coast over. Reader, a thought question: If you take away Uber drivers — if they vanished or were raptured or, I dunno, they just stopped logging on, en masse — do you still have Uber? The very question must seem absurd. Yet rideshare companies (not just Uber but Lyft, Juno, and the others), using a model not dissimilar to taxi companies here and elsewhere, don’t actually employ drivers to pick you up to take you to work, the doctor’s office, or to Kennedy Airport — they contract them.

What began as a small technological disruption in the late 2000s has grown into a column of municipal infrastructure, powering many dependent industries across the boroughs. Isn’t their brand their mission? Isn’t their mission to have drivers pick you up and take you places? Uber has its courier/meal delivery service, it’s true, but to borrow a Ben Stiller line from The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), that’s a lot of pressure to put on coffee.


The Falchi Building in Long Island City is a massive former industrial building, recently made friendly by a well-meaning new facade in earth and slate tones and the hum of perpetual development. It sits behind LaGuardia Community College, nestled in a set of city blocks ringed by the arterial spray of outbound Manhattan traffic that’s just skittered down the ramp of the Ed Koch Bridge, onto Queens Boulevard and points east. Since 2013, when an ambitious renovation plan was kicked off by Jamestown L.P., which also owns Chelsea Market, Falchi has become a hub of the city’s taxi industry and, in many ways, an emblem of the ability of at least one market — real estate — to pivot smartly with changing times.

Inside five fast years that saw the city flood with rideshare vehicles, the yellow cab medallion lose much of its value, and the U.S. elect a new president, Falchi has taken in such tenants as Uber, Lyft, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (along with its quasi-ancillary court system, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, or OATH), a taxi school, and a variety of premium food stalls to nourish any caffeine or carbohydrate craving. Stalking potential interviewees for a quick word, I’ve walked the interior length of Falchi’s main concourse several times. It gleams with the synthetic spit-polish of a vintage Williamsburg goliath, everything old made new again; you half-expect to walk outside and run smack into the old Domino Sugar Factory on Kent Avenue.

Outside, there’s this company called Velozcar, operating one of those curbside, walk-in buses, the kind where you might go in to buy health coverage or get your cat spayed, except Velozcar is signing up drivers, to lease sedans, black cars, SUVs, and so on. The Velozcar bus is shamrock green and fitted with loudspeakers blasting a robo-lady voice promising “Free fresh donuts. Fresh donuts every day. And free.” It’s one step away from promoting the new life that awaits us on off-world colonies.

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Me and another guy are standing on the top steps, looking at the bus, which is partly obscured by a Citibike rack and two food trucks. “Are you a driver?” I ask. He shakes his head. We’re both sort of mesmerized by the loudspeaker, which has just been cranked up from furtive to borderline hostile. “I bet they don’t even have fresh donuts,” the guy standing next to me says. He gestures back toward Falchi, “We got fresh donuts.” I put two and two together and realize he’s with the Doughnut Plant, which has a street-facing storefront. For a while, it looks like nobody’s interested in getting on the bus, making the dramatic increase in the loudspeaker’s volume seem comical and sad. Then, as if by clockwork, a bunch of kids from the nearby high school line up to get free goodies. They’re none of them old enough to drive a taxi, but the mass of bodies is enough to suggest that Velozcar warrants a crowd — the old “hey, you never know” marketing strategy.

People going into and out of Falchi either work there, were summoned there, or are going in to enroll with Lyft or Uber. There are quite a few cops — city, Port Authority, some Corrections guys — who seem to be there for court appearances. Drivers self-identify by carrying scrunched-up official papers and wearing pensive looks as they hurry in to take care of some piece of official business — odds are, something not pleasant.

Since I stopped driving for Uber and Lyft and starting writing about the rideshare industry, I’ve probably spoken with twice as many drivers as I ever did on the job. I know what they’re going through and I know what they’re going to say when I ask them about the California Supreme Court ruling, but I want to get their reaction anyway. Besides, this isn’t so much a news event as the possibility of one, perhaps several years in the future. Real change would essentially require two things to happen: Localities would need a legal framework that prescribes California’s formulation of the contractor-or-employee question (it will mean a lot if the Supreme Court ever weighs in on it), and the affected companies would have to say, yes, we still intend for our business model to endure in this market, even after such a foundational shift. There have been longer shots that have paid off, but this is a sizable two-legged parlay bet, and a lot remains to be seen and said before the horses come out of the gate.

Hamde Hassan Al-Mohammad is smoking a cigarette with his pal — both have been Uber drivers for more than a year. Al-Mohammad speaks in rolling, circular sentences about the plight of rideshare drivers. He cites the March suicide of Nicanor Ochisor, the cabbie who hanged himself in his home in Maspeth, reportedly in despair after the value of his taxi medallion plummeted post-Uber. “The TLC are always talking about how they’re going to make a change, make a difference. But they aren’t doing anything.”

At the risk of conflating the TLC, which regulates drivers, and the rideshare companies, which give many of them their livelihood, I press on about the California Supreme Court decision. “What if all the drivers disappeared, would these companies still exist?” The two men shake their heads — it seemed silly to ask. We even chuckle a little.

I ask them what they think will happen, in the wake of the ruling. For a moment I’m once again just another malingering driver, frittering away a few minutes between jobs, pondering legal or philosophical mysteries well beyond the grasp of anyone present. “It depends, you know,” Al-Mohammad begins, and we discuss the different ways employee status would be an upgrade over the contractor life, a boilerplate rundown that you’re likely familiar with (401k, medical, etc.).

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The conversation goes much the same way with Simon, a Bangladeshi driver who’s just come from the Uber and Lyft offices with his wife. They’re recent Maryland transplants who have to jump through a few hoops to re-enroll in the New York territory. He tells me that Maryland/D.C. driving is very difficult, that one relies on those rare long fares to make ends meet. Without rideshare drivers, do you have rideshare companies? Of course not. Would it be better to be an employee, rather than an independent contractor? Of course. The well-meaning uselessness of the discussion dissipates in the air, and we part ways politely.

I snag a driver walking out of Uber with one of those shiny, branded folders. He asked me not to use his name, but his heartache had to do with health care. “I pay $600 a month for health coverage. Every week I make money driving, but it goes right out again.” Tell me you don’t know what that’s like.


I reached out to Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, and other firms to see if they wanted to add anything to the conversation. Uber, whose long history of icing out press inquiries makes the Obama administration look like the paragon of transparency, didn’t reply to my email. Lyft didn’t get back to me in time, but their auto-reply had that fuzzy, Lyft-is-nicer tone. (“We know you’re likely on a deadline…” Aw, shucks.) Grubhub’s communications VP, Brendan Lewis, replied quickly with a note explaining that the company has an ongoing court case of its own — Lawson v. Grubhub, a case not unlike Dynamex, except this time the plaintiff is a delivery driver, not a firm — and couldn’t really comment substantially, except to say that Grubhub would continue to ensure its delivery partners “can take advantage of the flexibility they value from working with our company,” etc., etc.

Between drivers who can only speculate, but who are more than cognizant of the challenges “independence” entails, and the companies, guided by whatever mechanisms they can exploit to acquire and maintain a competitive edge, there’s little definitive that can be said to project the consequences of the California court’s ruling into the industry’s future. The Los Angeles Times got some pointers from Michael Chasalow, a USC law professor, who suggested that rideshare companies might have to reclassify contractors under the new ruling, but that it wouldn’t be a panacea for the drivers because the ruling — and any decisions made in its wake — will be interpreted as narrowly as possible by any and every company it affects. In California, some things (like wages and down time) might experience a shift, while others (like what’s considered taxable income, and what can be deducted as a business expense) remain nested within other, equally lugubrious legal entanglements. 

For example, an ongoing case pitting rideshare drivers against the city of Seattle over the right to unionize is a whole other sticky wicket. Unlike a wide range of industries and professions, from education to law enforcement, entertainment, and construction, the taxi industry has, infamously, never welcomed unionization on a significant scale, preferring instead to commodify the right of pickups, first with a marketplace of medallions, now with smartphone software. The act of reclassifying drivers as employees, rather than contractors, might change that, especially in an era that’s seen a recent spike in collective action.

A state other than California could, conceivably, hear a suit against Uber or Lyft, brought by an agglomeration of drivers, using the California Supreme Court decision as a precedent. It’s taken a little less than a decade for these firms to grow from a weird little idea to an integral part of our daily lives. There’s nothing to be said for sure about what’s to come, except that, in the post–Cambridge Analytica, post-#DeleteUber age, more than a few of us are wary of the utopian promise of “the disruptors,” and we’re beginning to become more aware, in matters as far-ranging as health, security, and labor relations, of what’s a feature, and what’s a bug.


Why the City Council Is Turning Against Uber

Last week, the new Speaker of the New York City Council made a rather startling admission: He made a mistake by not trying to restrain the growth of Uber when he had the chance a few years ago.

“I’ll give myself some demerits for not understanding the depth of this and grasping the issues that we would come to face over three years ago,” Corey Johnson told WNYC radio, speaking of legislation that he refused to support in 2015. “I was skeptical at the time.” But in hindsight, he said, “given what we’ve seen and the explosive growth of this industry and how it’s affected the streets of New York City, I think we should have done more.”

Three years ago, then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito defied Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2015 drive to put a cap on the number of new Uber drivers. And she wasn’t alone: Most of the other leading politicians in New York, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, sided with Uber over the mayor.

Three years later, much has changed. The council is again considering a series of bills that could potentially kneecap Uber and its competitors, including imposing an annual $2,000 fee on each vehicle or establishing a “growth control mechanism” for for-hire vehicles, asTaxi and Limousine Commissioner Meera Joshi has suggested. And Johnson has expressed his support, tipping his hand in January when he created a new council committee to study regulating for-hire vehicles and tapped a staunch ally of the yellow taxi industry, Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, to chair it.

Why have Johnson and the council changed their tune? Why are they now embracing legislation they once helped kill?

Uber, as any New Yorker at this point knows, has expanded exponentially. The for-hire industry, which also includes popular apps like Lyft, Juno, and Via, has created unprecedented convenience for anyone fed up with public transit or even walking. On a whim and a swipe, at any time of the day or night, a car can be summoned. There are now more than 100,000 for-hire vehicles on the road, including black cars and liveries — more than double the number from five years ago — and nearly 72,000 are working for app-based services. Last year, Uber trips outstripped yellow taxi trips for the first time. A 2017 report from Bruce Schaller, a former New York City Department of Transportation official and street traffic expert, made clear the obvious: An explosion of for-hire vehicles is creating a traffic nightmare.

Meanwhile, all the other means of getting around the city are slowing down. New York now has the slowest buses in America, according to an analysis from the city comptroller’s office. And as the subway system struggles daily with delays, mismanagement, and disinvestment, commutes by car look ever more attractive — driving a decline in subway ridership and a further increase in traffic. It’s the perfect automotive storm.

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De Blasio’s idol, Fiorello La Guardia, confronted a somewhat similar problem in the 1930s when an unregulated taxi industry flooded the streets with new cars. The medallion system was born, capping the number of taxis on the road. Today, there are a little over 13,000 taxi medallions. Once immensely valuable — medallions could sell for more than $1 million a few years ago, and were hoarded by wealthy moguls — medallions now trade for as little as $175,000 in the wake of the rideshare influx.

There will be no tears shed for taxi moguls like Gene Freidman, who rubbed elbows with the city’s elite while running into legal trouble. The taxi industry, an influential lobby that has flooded de Blasio’s campaign coffers with hundreds of thousands of dollars, has been a useful foil for Uber because the medallion system has bred serious income inequality. But there are numerous cab drivers, many of them immigrants, who literally invested their livelihoods in medallions. Their incomes decimated, drivers have begun to kill themselves.

Has all this moved the council to act? Those in the legislative body say so. But there’s also another stark truth: Uber ain’t what it used to be.

The summer of 2015 may have represented, in retrospect, the pinnacle of the rideshare behemoth’s power — at least in the five boroughs. To combat attempts at regulation, Uber hired the most prominent local and national strategists in America to crush City Hall.

There was David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s old campaign wizard; Stu Loeser, Michael Bloomberg’s longtime press secretary; and Bradley Tusk, a former Bloomberg and Chuck Schumer aide who grew rich from owning Uber stock. Not to mention Jimmy Siegel, a Hillary Clinton ad maker, and Patrick Jenkins, a leading lobbyist and close friend of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Uber ended up spending $1 million lobbying city government to defeat the driver cap bill. A self-professed progressive champion who rode to victory with the support of black New Yorkers, de Blasio was not prepared for Uber’s salvos: TV ads featuring people of color talking about how driving for Uber was a lifeline for them and accusing the mayor of wanting to steal their jobs.

Uber even created a “de Blasio” feature on its app projecting increased wait times for rides if the mayor successfully restricted the number of black cars on the road. Its political team enlisted prominent African American elected officials like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to hammer home the narrative that de Blasio, rather than trying to restrain a corporation worth tens of billions of dollars, was constricting opportunities for black and brown New Yorkers.

Stephen Levin, the Brooklyn councilman who carried the bill attempting to curb Uber’s growth, wasn’t safe either. Uber sent emails to all users of the app in Levin’s district telling them their councilman wanted to take their rides way.

And then there were the celebrities:

Support for the Uber-restricting bills in the City Council collapsed. City Hall retreated. Uber had won.

Three years later, this multipronged offensive has not rematerialized. TV ads, attacking apps, and rallies may still come, but even if they do, Johnson and his council allies have said they intend to pursue bills to contain for-hire vehicles.

Those within politics will tell you Uber has lost its leverage, and they aren’t wrong. Once, like Apple, an unassailable tech brand representative of all that is fresh and desirable, Uber is now struggling to repair its image from a series of missteps and scandals.

There was Uber’s decision to drop prices around JFK Airport in the wake of Donald Trump’s first Muslim ban, undercutting protesting taxi workers; the revelations of Uber’s sexist culture, fueled by toxic machismo; and the ouster of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. Drivers, meanwhile, called for employee benefits and decried the company’s ongoing exploitation of their labor. Suddenly, #DeleteUber was a movement.

The setbacks are global. London took away Uber’s operating license last fall, though the company continues to operate there while it appeals the decision. In December, the European Union’s highest court ruled Uber should be regulated like a taxi company, not a tech company, siding with Barcelona cab drivers who argued that Uber had an unfair advantage over them because it wasn’t regulated as heavily.

Uber remains popular among its users in New York, and it’s possible the rideshare giant will again try to marshal its user base to beat back City Hall. Yet its relative silence — a striking turnaround from 2015 — and the newly emboldened politicians indicate the fight may look very different this time around.

This time, at least, the celebrities aren’t tweeting about it.


Uber Drivers Speak Out on That MIT Hourly Pay Study

Last week, a public relations skirmish broke out between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Uber, after researchers at the school’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) released a dismaying study on the subject of ride-sharing drivers’ profits. Across the board, they estimated, after accounting for such business costs as fuel, depreciation, and insurance, Uber and Lyft drivers — independent contractors by definition, and thus granted few of the protections that even the most rudimentary part-time jobs boast — often saw their take-home pay dip well below $4 an hour. 

After the gist of MIT’s findings were conveyed to the public square by Sam Levin’s March 1 article for the Guardian, Uber — far and away the largest ride-share platform, with an estimated 88 percent participation among operators — quickly contested the numbers. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi even took to Twitter to blast MIT, joking that the august research university’s initials stood for “Mathematically Incompetent Theories (at least as it pertains to ride-sharing).” By Saturday, the study’s lead, Stephen Zoepf, quietly emailed a walk-back to Reuters, suggesting that the fire MIT found in the industry’s smoke might allow for a few different layers of interpretation.

Lyft CEO Logan Green, who has tweeted a mere 167 times since 2008, adopted the WarGames strategy, in which the only winning move is not to play. Instead of wading into the firefight, Green took the opportunity to plug his company’s rapidly developing role in medical transport, i.e., non-ambulance rides to and from medical facilities. On the company’s official Twitter, its deluge of funny GIFs and earnest customer-care replies flagged not for a moment. Uber’s Khosrowshahi acknowledged (at least temporarily) mended fences on Saturday, and by the time The Shape of Water was anointed Best Picture of 2017 at the Academy Awards, there was, as Wheeler’s telegrams in Citizen Kane might have put it, no war.

Let’s take a step back. Bystanders to this fight will find it hard to resist assigning face and heel roles: In this corner, Uber, the mustache-twirling villain, tossing defenseless driver operators (“partners,” in gig economy parlance) into the meat grinder. Challenging the transportation Goliath, there’s MIT, benevolent bulwark of higher learning, ceaseless fount of geniuses across a broad spectrum of human endeavor, home of the finest Will Hunting movies, soberly but decisively assuming a defensive posture over the racked bodies of the ride-share industry’s labor pool, as the university apparatus is wont to do, or, at least, would like to be seen as doing.

“Bullshit,” Uber driver Shahid (who, like most of the contractors I spoke with, asked not to be named in full) told me Tuesday morning, as he used a cloth rag to wipe down his powder-blue Honda Accord, overlooking the Flushing Bay Promenade. I took an extended lunch break from one of my day jobs to pedal out to the LaGuardia Airport For-Hire Vehicle holding area (where drivers wait for audio alerts to scoop up a fare at the terminal) and find out what drivers thought about this public squabble over driver pay. I learned Shahid’s biography in about nineteen seconds: He had a mortgage, he had his children’s tuition bills, he’d worked at a grocery store for many years, and he’d turned to ride-share driving when he lost that job.

“Peak times, even when you take out the gas, the insurance, the car note, the tolls, you take home twelve to fifteen an hour,” Shahid said. “During slow times, you make about minimum wage. But that’s before tax.”

Most of the drivers I spoke with this week joined Uber at some point in the last three years, validating reports of low contractor retention. Shahid started in November of 2017 and had never before driven any kind of taxi, or for any ride-share company. By my lights, he seemed an incredibly quick study, and his grasp of ride-share metrics and P&L ratios were on par with someone who’d been in the game for years, not months. He was only too eager to crack open his driver app to show me a few relevant rides, such as a Westchester-to-Westchester job that was mostly spent on the Bronx River Parkway, with a payout of about $11. Another ride, one that brought him to LaGuardia from Brooklyn, was almost identical in terms of time and miles but paid more than half again as much. As we talked shop for almost thirty minutes, it became clear that he knew exactly which work practices would butter his bread.

Shahid and many others confirmed some things I already knew from my own years behind the wheel. For trips in the five boroughs, plus Westchester and Long Island, the absolute minimum fare (let’s say, driving someone from their apartment on First Avenue and East 86th Street to the subway station at Second Avenue and East 86th Street) is around $7 or $8. Traveling outside those eight New York counties reduces the base fare to $4 or $5, and drops the mileage and time rates as well. (Shorter version: New Jersey and Connecticut rides are cheap as hell.)

Nationwide, rates fluctuate based on region, county, and state. Some of the worst fare structures I found (by exploring city-specific pages on the Lyft website, as well as fare calculators on other platforms’ sites) are in Florida, with Miami, Tampa Bay, and Orlando drivers earning 30 percent less (per minute and mile) than their colleagues in Daytona Beach, one of the only Sunshine State markets to offer rates that begin to approach what one can earn in most other parts of the country. Working near small towns and in rural areas may permit drivers access to fare matrices that look reasonable at first glance, but when those ride requests come once an hour or less, as Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta says on the subject of cooking a steak too long, it defeats its own purpose.


I caught up with Uber driver Dennis on his smoke break. I briefed him on the bullet points of the MIT study, and Uber’s response. He was carrying two smartphones, which is pretty common among drivers who want to cover all their bases by signing up for every available platform.

Dennis wrinkled his nose at the sub-$4-per-hour figure, and suggested that it sounded a bit extreme. “Maybe in the sticks,” he said. “If you want to make decent money at this, you have to work city jobs.” Our unscientific line of inquiry quickly concluded: Operating a car for a ride-sharing platform is a tough racket; you gotta put in the hours, don’t take two-hour lunches, do work crunch time in Manhattan, and always have a backup plan when the push alerts stop pushing.

This is all big-city talk, with some degree of carry-over into other metro areas around the country. Not surprisingly, online ride-share operator support groups have lamented the drought of fare opportunities in small towns and rural areas. Drivers in these markets may either make a special effort to head to the nearest larger market (Fargo instead of Moose Lake) or find alternative ways to make their dead time pay.

The MIT report relies on data from a 2017 study by “The Rideshare Guy” — Harry Campbell, a blogger and writer who has contributed to Forbes, the New York Times, and Wired — to make allowances for geography. Campbell’s survey, drawn from a pool of over 1,100 respondents, provides an array of interesting findings concerning demographic data like age, race, and gender. It’s a commendable job of work, and a fair place to start a conversation on dozens of intersecting concerns about the industry, about labor, and so on.

At the same time, as CEEPR’s only source of self-reported driver data, it’s being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting. When Zoepf tweeted out his official statement on the paper, he explained how differently calibrated calculations might show overall driver take-home pay to be more than double the now somewhat incendiary $3.37-per-hour estimate.

Still, skepticism or apathy toward MIT’s study doesn’t automatically translate to an unquestioning embrace of the tech platforms in question. More than one driver expressed ambivalence, or something harsher and more colorful, toward one ride-share company or another. The names of this or that company were sometimes spat more than spoken. Lyft loyalist Omar, who wound up at the LaGuardia lot after fruitlessly cruising for fares around nearby Flushing, explained that he’d shut the door on Uber after getting burned one too many times.

The last straw occurred in 2016 when he took a drowsy, late-night rider to Jersey City from Battery Park, only for the semi-coherent young man to inform him, well after crossing the Hudson, that the intended destination was Twelfth Avenue in Manhattan, not 12th Street in Jersey City. Although the New Jersey destination was, in fact, a matter of permanent digital record, Uber issued a merciless fare adjustment the following day, sticking Omar with the Lincoln Tunnel toll, and reducing the price of the ride to what it would have otherwise cost, had the somewhat blissfully impaired passenger double-checked his order details: eleven bucks to go from FiDi to one of those ice palace cinder blocks overlooking Chelsea Piers, down from a relatively lofty thirty plus a blanket twenty for going over the river. All in, counting an E-ZPass transaction that would now never be recouped, Omar netted negative one dollar for his trouble — not including expenses.

You may be thinking, Omar’s mistake is his own affair, and if Uber hoisted him up by his Skechers to make his lunch money fall out of his pockets on behalf of an irate rider, well, c’est la guerre. I even told him about how, when I drove for Lyft and Uber, I always confirmed a passenger’s destination, especially when it was a long haul. Maybe Omar could write letters to E-ZPass, in the hopes of reclaiming the errant toll.

Or maybe you’re already cringing from muscle memory of a different kind of toll, a psychic toll, extracted after interacting with bureaucracies. A driver like Omar will almost always find that the less agonizing option is to take a mulligan, and just plug away for an extra hour or so, turning an anticipated twelve-hour shift into thirteen or fourteen hours.

Several drivers who had signed on with Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Gett showed me a relatively new feature, a shift timer, implemented to comply with new New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission rules aimed at curbing driver fatigue. When you’ve been on duty for ten hours, you’re automatically logged out for a mandatory eight hours. Even so, flouting the (debatably) well-intentioned TLC rule is a simple matter of logging off Uber and logging on to Lyft, or vice versa. And if you run out the clock on two apps, there is always a third, or fourth, and so on.

Which led to my final query to each driver at the LaGuardia lot: Yes, we talked about how you have to expect to put in a long day (upwards of twelve hours) to earn a decent take-home. But should you have to? You can imagine the answer, but if you can’t, here’s a hint: It was unanimous.


Over the years, I’ve spoken with drivers hanging out at Taxi and Limousine Commission offices, at Uber and Lyft headquarters, at airports, at dive bars and Indian restaurants. The complaints about the soft tyranny of ride-share platforms remains consistent. The Uber driver is, in antiseptic-smelling policy terms, a small business owner, and business owners are nothing if not familiar with the thousand bleeding cuts that threaten to make a hash of their bottom line.

But the “Morning in America”–esque swelling pride we’re supposed to associate with American small business strikes a dissonant chord when you consider the Uber driver. What kind of small business is it that keeps you turning the mill every minute of a fourteen-hour day, alone, where a restroom break has to be considered in terms of lost revenue opportunities? Ride-share drivers are bound to their own steering wheels by invisible handcuffs, and while they may be the only ones who have the keys to those cuffs, the first thing they notice is they can’t seem to find those keys, forever. Driving for Lyft or Uber — or carrying an order of poke for Postmates, or building furniture for TaskRabbit — often makes one feel like the emissary in Franz Kafka’s An Imperial Message, doomed to an eternity of insisting the urgency of his charge against unending throngs of spectators and bystanders pressed the other way. Or like inhabitants of a variation on Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon, where one laboring body is beset on all sides by innumerable collectors of fines and fees — a “pan-kleptocon” in the shape of a smartphone and an automobile of your choosing. Show me six months’ of checking account statements of those same 1,100 drivers, and I’ll show you a virtual prison with no bars and no guards, but an easy-to-use interface on Apple iOS.

If CEEPR’s long list of sponsors — energy companies like BP and National Grid, automakers like Toyota — is any indication, the center speaks to large policy-making circles, spread across massive global markets. But the center’s clinical remove, while plausible in terms of academic decorum and protocol, has produced a kind of haze over what kind of conversation the study was supposed to have ignited. (The one conversation it did start certainly couldn’t have been the one it was after.) And I can’t look at the heavy reliance on a single, secondary data set, the Rideshare Guy survey — already confined to a narrow array of subjects — without a fair amount of disappointment.

With all due respect to Campbell, is there no significant driver data on weight gain, blood pressure, or heart disease, or stats relating to morale and mental health? What about steep bureaucratic expenses, like livery operator insurance, special licensing, and vehicle tags? What about lost time spent duking it out with City Hall over parking tickets and moving violations? Perhaps in expanding the scope of its examination, CEEPR (or a research entity like it), having erred in calculating hourly take-home pay by as much as 253 percent, could have done more to make it less easy for Uber’s CEO to destroy months of research and analysis in a single 9:25 p.m. tweet.

I can grok the letter of MIT’s study, but not the spirit. I envision the CEEPR panel through the famous Hindu parable about the roomful of blind men who cannot identify an elephant by its parts. Except that the creature in the room is an Uber driver, and the room is an abattoir, and the wise, blind men are conditionally (yet permanently) unable to figure out why the animal is dying.



Cuomo’s Congestion Pricing Plan Actually Isn’t Half-Bad

It’s been three months since Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a panel to come up with a congestion pricing plan to, as the panel was named, Fix NYC. That report came out today and it’s…good? I know, I’m just as surprised as you!

Meet the new proposed congestion charge, pretty much the same as the old proposed congestion charge

It would cost $11.52 a day for cars to drive into Manhattan south of 60th Street, otherwise known as the Central Business District (CBD), Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. That was the same proposal Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a decade ago — although the daily charge was then to be split up between $5.76 outbound and inbound charges — as part of the Move NY Plan, and it’s the core of Cuomo’s proposal now. Taxis, for-hire vehicles (more on them momentarily), and buses would be exempted. So, too, would trips along the FDR Drive that exit north of 60th Street — such as, for example, an SUV that drives from Gracie Mansion to Park Slope via FDR Drive and the Brooklyn Bridge every day.

In total, the fees, which would be charged via a combination of E-ZPass and license plate readers, would generate between $810 million and $1.1 billion annually while reducing congestion by 8 to 13 percent. That may not sound like much, but taking one out of every ten cars off the road makes a very big difference in getting traffic moving.

There are some minor differences in Cuomo’s plan, though. For one, the new proposal suggests charging trucks $25.34, or 2.2 times as much as cars, as trucks account for an outsize share of congestion and currently pay, wait for it, 2.2 times higher tolls on city bridges. The plan hopes this will encourage truck drivers to make deliveries during off-peak hours; it also calls for the congestion pricing for trucks to begin in 2020 as a kind of trial phase, before charges for cars follow a few months later.

A focus on for-hire vehicles

One of the biggest differences between the Fix NYC proposal and Mayor Bloomberg’s failed plan a decade ago is the emphasis on for-hire vehicles, since Uber and Lyft didn’t exist in 2008. As the report notes, for-hire vehicles now represent more than half of all vehicles in the CBD on weekday afternoons. To address that, rather than subjecting them to the congestion price, which would do little to disincentivize them since it would be a flat daily rate, it proposes a larger zone — up to 96th Street — for an FHV surcharge of between $2 and $5 per ride, with additional fees for time they’re in the zone without a passenger. In all, the surcharge could raise between $155 million and $605 million annually, depending on which pricing scheme is adopted.

The clever bit is where that money goes. The panel suggests this revenue be used to plug one of the big open questions facing the subway: Who’ll fund the MTA’s $836 million Subway Action Plan to repair and modernize the system? Currently, the state has committed to fund half, but de Blasio has refused to fund the city’s proposed share. The MTA’s only other funding options are to raise fares or borrow, and the MTA has already borrowed enough.

Another clever aspect of the FHV charge is a “significantly reduced” surcharge for pooled trips, such as UberPool and Lyft Line. Not only will this likely help reduce congestion by increasing occupancy rates, it will help get Uber and Lyft on board since pooled rides, if they have multiple people in them, are far more profitable.

A phased approach

Rather than implement everything at once, the report calls for a phased approach, which seems “essential” to making the plan work.

The first phase, beginning this year, would be fairly modest, requiring a full review of the city’s parking placard system — which in effect bestows upon more than 100,000 people, mostly city employees and politicians, a waiver to park wherever they want for free — increased (or any) enforcement of traffic laws such as blocking the box or parking in bus lanes, and changes to various MTA funding structures to more directly provide a guaranteed source of revenue. You know, things that should have been done a long time ago.

The second phase, starting in 2019, would implement the above FHV surcharges. And the third phase, targeted for 2020, would see the congestion pricing introduced, first to trucks as a kind of trial phase, then to cars as well, as soon as the L train comes back into service.

While this timeline sounds fine, it would require the MTA to get cracking on the congestion charge technology before the legislature is likely to approve it. Two years of lead time seems awfully tight. For example, it took London two years to implement its congestion charge even though the mayor had unilateral authority to order it.

This is about much more than congestion pricing

As the name of the panel suggests, this report is a wide-ranging review of how to make transportation in New York City better and how to fund it. For example, the panel calls for the existing Payroll Mobility Tax, introduced in 2009, to be dedicated to the MTA without needing annual state legislative approval. It also supports Cuomo’s proposal to allow the MTA to collect real estate taxes from development that benefits from mass transit expansion, such as the Second Avenue Subway. Then there are the placard, bus, and traffic enforcement proposals mentioned above. This is, fundamentally, a plan to make getting around New York City bearable.

Is the range of options a feature or a bug?

As Cuomo promised, the proposal is a slate of recommendations rather than one take-it-or-leave-it plan. The report outlines several possible charging schemes for pretty much every one of its ideas. And nothing says the whole plan has to be adopted; it’s easy to envision, for example, the placard review somehow getting lost in the shuffle. Maybe we just end up with an FHV surcharge and a bitter fight with Uber and Lyft.

Or, perhaps the flexibility allows for political horse-trading in Albany in order for the plan to pass. It’s still too early to say, but at the very least, it’s a plan every New Yorker — even the ones who drive and will therefore enjoy less traffic — should get excited about.


Taxi and Uber Drivers Protest the Uber-Trump Axis: “Your Loyalty Should Not Belong to an App”

On Thursday evening drivers with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance were joined by labor, community and immigrant rights organizers outside Uber’s Long Island City headquarters. The hundred or so drivers and organizers had braved the cold to protest both Uber’s labor practices, which drivers say undercut their fares, and Uber CEO’s decision to join Trump’s business advisory council. They saw both as attacks on the Alliance’s membership as well as the wider immigrant and Muslim communities across the country.

As protesters arrived with signs and banners, word came down that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had announced that he was leaving Trump’s business advisory council.

“Uber fundamentally destroys what’s a full-time profession and turns it into a gig economy,” Bhairavi Desai, the Taxi Workers Alliance’s executive director, told the Voice, adding that as a result, taxi drivers are working longer hours but earning less. “Its business practices are very much in line with this president.”

On Saturday, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 19,000 drivers, the majority of whom are Muslim, announced a one-hour strike on rides to JFK airport to protest Trump’s Muslim Ban, which blocked refugees and severely restricted the ability of people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Drivers already at the airport were urged to join the protest.

Less than three hours later, Uber announced that their surge pricing had been turned off for rides of JFK, saying that the move would allow airline passengers to reach the airport without incurring additional costs because of increased demand. The announcement was widely viewed as an effort to break the Taxi Workers Alliance’s strike and, coupled with Kalanick’s participation in Trump’s business advisory council, resulted in public backlash, including a viral #DeleteUber campaign in which more than 200,000 people deleted their accounts. Kalanick also faced internal pressure from his staff to leave the council.

Calling Kalanick’s announcement a “victory for the larger movement,” Desai reiterated, “the goal of our strike was to express our opposition to the ban. We’re keeping our eyes on the prize.”

“We didn’t have Uber on our mind when we went out on strike,” she added. “The beating that Kalanick took was collateral damage.” But many of the people rallying that evening did, noting that Uber has negatively impacted their livelihood.

Sonam Sherpa has been driving a yellow cab ever since he immigrated from Nepal in 1999. He owns his own medallion, which allows him to lease his cab to others when he himself isn’t driving. Once Uber began undercutting the regulated fares of yellow and green taxis, he’s seen both a drop in fares and a decrease in drivers wanting to lease his cab. “Now, everyone is going to Uber,” he said. Though that was his main reason for showing up outside Uber headquarters, he’s also worried about the direction the country is heading. “America is the land of opportunity, but it’s not easy to live here,” he reflected, noting the high costs of living. “But here you can say what you want. The main value of this country is the freedom.” With the Trump presidency, he worries that that freedom is quickly eroding.

Nancy Reynoso has driven a green borough taxi for the past seven years—and also felt the impact of Uber and other ride-sharing apps. “We have been hit very hard,” she said. But like Sherpa, that’s not the only reason she came out—she also feels that drivers need to make their voices heard, both in opposition to Uber’s practices as well as their CEO’s involvement with Trump.

Rizwan Raja is an organizer with the Taxi Workers Alliance. He points out that the fares charged by yellow cab drivers are regulated by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. In contrast, Uber fares fluctuate in response to the ratio of drivers to demand. “Uber really lowered wages for all drivers,” he said.

Some of Uber’s own drivers came out to the protest as well. Oselig Lantigua has been driving for both Uber and Lyft for little over a year. Though he works for Uber, he doesn’t agree with their business practices, noting that their plans for driverless cars will mean even more job loss. “It doesn’t matter if I work for Uber. I have the right to protest,” said Lantigua, who is also a member of New York Communities for Change, a coalition of families fighting for social and economic justice. He added that he spent this Sunday in Battery Park City protesting Trump’s Muslim Ban. “I’m here supporting the Muslim community and also a ban on the wall,” he said.

Those at the rally viewed Kalanick’s announcement as a victory — and a reminder that protests do indeed work. “It’s great to see all this activism leading to results,” Senator Michael Gianaris, who represents the 12th district in Queens, told the Voice. But, he added, “we have to keep fighting.”

Organizers cut the rally by an hour so that protesters could also attend the rally to mark the five-year anniversary of the shooting death of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, who was unarmed when he was killed in his Bronx home by NYPD Officer Richard Haste. As the rally wound down, Desai reminded the crowd, “Your loyalty should not belong to an app or a corporation. It should belong to the workers.”


Study: Uber and Lyft Drivers Don’t Like Picking Up Black People Either

An academic report published Monday has found what many Uber and Lyft users already know firsthand: Both apps have instances of racist drivers declining to pick up their black fares.

According to the New York Times, researchers studied around 1,500 combined trips in Seattle and Boston, with both African Americans and white test subjects hailing separate rides with both services.

“We found that African-American travelers in Seattle experienced statistically significantly longer delay waiting for a trip request through UberX or Lyft to be accepted,” said the researchers, from the University of Washington, M.I.T. and Stanford.

“We theorize that at least some drivers for both UberX and Lyft discriminate on the basis of the perceived race of the traveler.”

This spells big trouble for the two services, both of which largely built their brands on the premise that their apps would eliminate the possibility of such bias.

Instead, passengers with black-sounding names were found to have their trips cancelled by drivers twice as often as passengers with white-sounding names. When the riders are men with black-sounding names, the number jumps to three times as often.

Uber and Lyft drivers see information about potential fares in different ways. Uber drivers don’t have any information about their riders before accepting them, but they can cancel them once their names become available; Lyft drivers, on the other hand, have access to names and photos before accepting, meaning they can opt out of picking up whoever they want.

Researchers also found that drivers took longer to accept ride requests from black men using both apps, though total wait times were the same for both races using Lyft. On Uber, wait times were longer for black men.

Similar instances of discrimination have have plagued Airbnb, where people with black-sounding names found it harder to book apartments and rooms. But Airbnb took swift action to curb racism in its services, instating a strict anti-discrimination statute that includes a bias-detection team, less-obvious personal photos, and the company hiring a more-diverse staff. The site also committed to helping users who experienced discrimination find new accommodations at the last minute. But Uber and Lyft have the additional roadblock of operating in an industry known for racism.

While the outcome of the study certainly isn’t positive, neither is the reality when it comes to street hails. As quoted in Slate:

The first taxi stopped nearly 60% of the time for white RAs, but less than 20% of the time for African American RAs. The white RAs never had more than four taxis pass them before one stopped, but the African American RAs watched six or seven taxis pass them by in 20% of cases.

Writing for Medium, Jenna Wortham saw presciently this problem coming, even in the heady days of 2014 while everyone was still lauding the rise of ride-share apps as the anti-discrimination savior we’d been waiting for.

“It’s also not entirely clear that Uber’s system is completely foolproof,” she wrote. “Because drivers can reject riders for any reason, you have no way of knowing whether it’s because of your rating, your name (from which race can often be inferred), or the neighborhood you’re in.”

Troublingly, though, neither Uber nor Lyft have yet hatched any plan to address the issue of racist drivers. Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, told the Times there was “no place for racism on the company’s online platform,” though it has no plans to alter how it functions.

“Studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more,” she told the paper vaguely.

Lyft similarly offered a flat statement about how the company does not “tolerate any form of discrimination.”

Amazing how a problem just vanishes when you simply deny its existence.


Uber App Gets Thumbs-Up to Hail Yellow Cabs

On Friday, New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission approved the savvy, San Francisco-based Uber as the first app New Yorkers can use to hail yellow medallion taxi cabs. After nearly a year of delays, the announcement marks the start of a year-long pilot program, during which the TLC will be able to experiment with different “e-hail” providers.

Since 2010, legions of drunk, lost, or tightly scheduled San Franciscans have been using Uber to hail luxury cabs without standing in the middle of the street and trying to flag them down. The app operates like a map, showing users which cabs that have signed up for the service are closest to them. From there, it only takes a few finger swipes to arrange for one of those cabs to come pick a traveler up.

Last week, Uber won a lawsuit filed by New York’s black car and livery lobby. The suit claimed that implementation of the app would discriminate against the elderly who lack smartphones, among six other causes of action, but the Manhattan judge ultimately denied all of them. The decision arrived seven months after New York City officials first started questioning the app’s impact–last September, Councilman James Vacca, City Council transportation committee chairman, told the New York Times he was concerned the app would create a “two-tiered taxi system,” between those who own smartphones and those who don’t.

Our guess is that there are other forms of inequity in New York City that are probably more pressing than the smartphone/phone-phone divide. Still, Uber has run up against the industry establishment in its hometown, too–class-action lawsuits have been filed in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco over the app’s fare protocol and legality.

Last year, Uber’s lawyer, John Quinn, called the S.F. lawsuit bollocks. “Uber complies with all laws and regulations applicable to its business. Any claim to the contrary is baseless and motivated by those who seek to deprive the public of this safe and convenient transportation option,” Quinn said in a statement.

“Uber would rather compete for business on the streets of San Francisco than in the courtroom, but Uber will defend these claims in court and is confident of the outcome,” he said.