(Photo by Mark Dent for Billy Penn)
Uber launched its lower-cost, ridesharing service uberX in Philadelphia with a bang this weekend, defying the Philadelphia Parking Authority and offering free rides. But the company has been quietly operating uberX without a license in the Philadelphia suburbs for months, Technical.ly Philly has learned.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates taxis outside of Philly, had not heard of any uberX action in the suburbs, said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher, but if Uber is indeed operating uberX there, “it’s not permitted.”
The PUC, though, doesn’t have the authority to impound a vehicle like the PPA, Kocher said. It can fine ridesharing drivers $1,000 and ask PennDOT to revoke their vehicle registrations, Kocher said, but only after a hearing before the PUC that allows the driver to respond to the complaint. That process can take months. (Here’s an example of an open case in Pittsburgh.)
Kocher said the PUC will look into uberX’s activity in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Uber has been operating uberX as early as July, per this July 10 email forwarded to us by an uberX driver who serves the suburbs and asked to remain anonymous. Drivers were told they were allowed to drop off in Philadelphia but not pick up there, according to uberX driver Rich Piotrowski.
When asked how long Uber had been specifically operating uberX in the Philly suburbs, Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett declined to comment, only writing in an email: “Uber has been serving the Philly suburbs since our launch in May 2012.”
Some uberX drivers that serve the suburbs, like Tony Salzano, were the ones who came rushing into Philly when Uber announced its launch this Friday. Others came from South Jersey, where Uber announced last April that it was “testing” uberX.
Salzano said he mostly covers Montgomery County, where he lives, but sometimes also Bucks and Delaware Counties. He’s been working for Uber about 20 hours a week since late August.
Uber’s decision to operate in the Philadelphia suburbs is notable given the fact that in 2014, it has spent more than $93,000 lobbying Harrisburg for friendly legislation statewide. State legislators said earlier this month that they would likely not make a decision on ridesharing’s legality this year.
In Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, Uber is operating uberX with a temporary permit that recently got extended. That’s after the PUC issued Uber (and Lyft) cease-and-desist orders in July, which Uber defied. Uber’s application to operate uberX statewide is still pending, Kocher said.
In Philadelphia, despite the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s moves to shut it down, Uber will continue to operate uberX, Uber spokesman Bennett said. (The service will, however, no longer be free like it was last weekend.)
The PPA impounded six uberX cars and fined them $1,000 each in a sting operation last weekend, Billy Penn reported. Uber launched uberX last Friday, when a company that insures more than 25 percent of Philly’s taxis went bankrupt.
“We welcome a civil and productive conversation with the PPA to establish a sensible approach to ridesharing regulation that doesn’t involve horses and riot gear,” Uber spokesman Bennett wrote in an email, alluding to the scene of one sting operation Saturday outside the Ritz 5 movie theater in Old City.
While Bennett said that Uber would cover the cost of the fines and impoundment, it doesn’t seem like Uber warned uberX drivers about the potential consequences of operating in the city this weekend. (Bennett declined to comment on that matter to Billy Penn.) At least two news reports quote drivers saying they didn’t know they could get fined and impounded this weekend, which echoes what we heard from an uberX driver this weekend.
Uber has, however, emailed uberX drivers telling them they will cover the cost of any fines or impoundment, Salzano, the uberX driver, said. That, coupled with the high demand for rides, is enough to get him back working the city Halloween weekend, he said.
Uber also dropped its uberX prices in South Jersey by 37 percent, Bennett confirmed.
“We find that when fares are lower, the trips per hour increases, and drivers make more money,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Mayor Nutter weighed in on Twitter:
Facts: I strongly support having Uber/Lyft services in Philly. The #PPA, a STATE authority not run by the City, opposes them.
— Michael A. Nutter (@Michael_Nutter) October 27, 2014
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