(Photo by Flickr user Justin Lukasavige, used under a Creative Commons license)
Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians have expressed their support for Uber, the San Francisco-based company that now operates its black car and ridesharing services in close to 100 cities across the U.S.
More than 43,000 have signed the company’s online petition calling for state legislators to bring ridesharing statewide. One bill being considered, HB2468, would legalize uberX — the service through which anyone approved by Uber can pick up and drop off passengers in exchange for payment — across the commonwealth by reclassifying it and similar, competing services such as Lyft and Sidecar as “transportation network services.”
Uber has spent over $93,000 on lobbying in Harrisburg this year.
“I would agree with anybody that says it looks very, very, very unlikely that this sees daylight before the end of the session,” said Rep. Brian Sims, a first-term Philadelphia Democrat and cosponsor of HB2468. “I wish it would, but it probably won’t.”
Despite Uber’s best efforts, it now looks like approval of its ridesharing service, if there is to be any, won’t come until 2015. State records for 2014 indicate the company has sunk more than $93,000 so far into lobbying efforts, a paltry sum for a juggernaut of a tech company now valued at $18 billion, but nonetheless significant for what it represents: Uber’s cozying up to the very forces of regulation it claims to be doing battle against. (By comparison, Uber has spent a little more than $60,000 on lobbying in Maryland, the first state to rule Uber a transportation — not technology — company.)
Tale of two Keystone cities
Uber’s push into Pennsylvania has looked decidedly different to the east and west of Harrisburg, in part because of how taxis are respectively regulated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
In Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Parking Authority calls the shots, Uber has been on the streets since summer 2012, but only UberBLACK and UberSUV — the company’s traditional offering that uses licensed limo drivers to shuttle passengers — have received operating approval. But even that arrangement did not come without hiccups.
Uber vehicles were impounded at first until the company purchased a Certificate of Public Convenience and allowed the PPA to inspect the vehicles, conduct background checks on drivers and mandate that $1.5 million in liability insurance cover all Uber rides, even during periods when no one hailed an Uber vehicle via smartphone. Now Uber has roughly 450 vehicles driving around the city, according to PPA General Counsel Dennis Weldon.
In Pittsburgh, where Uber came onto the scene earlier this year, only ridesharing option uberX has been available. Uber initially flouted a ban on uberX by the state’s Public Utility Commission — which regulates taxis outside of Philly — before receiving temporary authority from the PUC in July to operate its ridesharing service in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Uber's temporary authority to run uberX in Pittsburgh expires Oct. 21.
But Uber would like to see ridesharing available — and protected long-term — in both cities, which is why state legislators in Harrisburg are now involved.
The PPA has maintained that uberX hasn’t a shot of surfacing in Philadelphia, mainly because uberX drivers and vehicles aren’t licensed. (Not coincidentally, the PPA backs HB2445, a bill that would enshrine transportation network services statewide but leave out Philadelphia.) Uber’s temporary authority to run uberX in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County expires Oct. 21, and while the company has filed for an extension, a larger battle now looms: at September’s end, two PUC judges declared that Uber shouldn’t be given permanent authority to operate uberX in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh.
For Uber, a company that disrupts first and answers critics second, this series of events deviates from the way things are supposed to work for tech startups.
"Kicking the can down the road doesn’t do anything for consumers."
Technology is supposed to remake the world, bending it to the whims of app developers and sneaker-sporting venture capitalists. It’s not supposed to rely on the requirements of public sector bureaucracy that enforces decades-old rules for permission to operate.
“Kicking the can down the road doesn’t do anything for consumers,” said Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett. “We’re hopeful that they’ll pass legislation that brings ridesharing to the entire state.”
Hope might spring eternal in the human breast, but Alexander Pope died a long time ago.
Bringing ridesharing to Philadelphia has the makings for an even thornier stalemate. Because Philadelphia County is the only one in Pennsylvania where cabs cannot operate without a medallion — which now cost around $500,000 each — the PPA, it appears, wouldn’t consider letting uberX drivers onto the streets unless they conformed to the same rules taxi companies do. (Which is probably why Philly taxi drivers, angry and anxious about the prospect of uberX being protected by legislative mandate, protested by blocking JFK Boulevard one day last week.)
"Uber decides that the names of their uberX drivers are somehow privileged. For any regulator, that’s a problem."
The PPA’s Weldon compares uberX to the “guy in the family minivan” charging less than taxis do to pick up people and drop them off at the same destinations, all without following the rules currently in place for cabbies.
“Opposition to this level of innovation has to do with protecting the status quo when it comes to taxicabs,” said Sims, the Philly-based state lawmaker.
Jon Feldman, Uber’s Philadelphia general manager, says that the company’s background checks are more thorough than those administered by the PPA. (Uber’s entire background check policy is here, although there is a key point of differentiation: the PPA does Live Scan fingerprinting, while Uber does not.)
“Uber decides that the names of their drivers are somehow privileged, and they don’t want to give up the names of the drivers,” said Weldon. “For any regulator, that’s a problem.”
Sims argues that those calling out the safety of uberX drivers are fishing for red herrings: “Opponents of this [bill HB2468] will cite driver safety, criminal background checks, insurance. This bill lays out in great detail how this is to take place,” he said.
What, then, are Philadelphians who are pro-uberX left to do?
Rally behind Councilman Jim Kenney, perhaps. Kenney introduced a resolution on Oct. 2 that would authorize the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Utilities to hold hearings to consider the state bills that would legalize ridesharing services.
“Let’s just figure out where everybody stands and whether or not there’s some middle ground we can all find,” he said. “Even at my advanced age of 56, I try to stay open to new ideas.”
Or, of course, wait until next year. “Starting in January, we’ll re-introduce this legislation,” said Sims.