(Photo by Flickr user @redlegsfan21, used under a Creative Commons license)
In a way, the Democratic National Convention paved the way for ridesharing companies to operate legally at the Philadelphia Airport.
In April, Uber officially started allowing its uberX ridesharing service to pick up passengers at the airport. Taxi and limo drivers cried foul. Airport officials called it illegal and said the Philadelphia Police Department would enforce.
Just three months later, though, both Uber and Lyft locked a temporary agreement to operate legally at PHL. They’d pay the Airport, which is owned by the city but operates on its own revenue and not city taxpayer dollars, $3.00 per pickup and $2.50 per drop off, according to Uber and Lyft. (That’s slightly higher than the fee for taxis: $1.50 per trip, though taxi drivers also have to pay an annual $25 maintenance fee.)
Why the quick change of heart?
For one, state government temporarily legalized ridesharing. But there was also the fact that tens of thousands transit-hungry political junkies were about to descend on the city for the DNC. The Airport, said spokeswoman Mary Flannery, wanted to give passengers options. (Just before the Airport finalized its agreement with the companies, it was featured in the Wall Street Journal on a list of airports that *gasp* don’t allow you to take Uber home.)
Since then, the temporary agreement has expired but Uber and Lyft continue to operate on those terms, according to spokespersons from both companies. The companies are currently negotiating a new agreement with the Airport, which includes the construction of a holding lot for Uber and Lyft drivers to wait for passengers at the airport.
That’s in addition to the first lot the Airport built for Uber and Lyft in late spring because its drivers were crowding what’s known as the “cellphone lot,” a lot for non-commercial drivers to make pickups at the airport, Flannery said.
(Hmm, but weren’t Uber and Lyft illegal back then? We asked Flannery about this and she said that enforcement fell on the Police Department, not the Airport. Evidently, enforcement was not a top priority. Not exactly a surprise.)
It’s common practice for the Airport to build lots for the different modes of transportation that service it. Taxi and limo drivers have two. There’s also the the cellphone lot. The Airport is betting that ridesharing is here to stay.
“We anticipate there will be ongoing demand,” Flannery said, when asked why it was necessary to build a second lot for Uber and Lyft. She pointed out that it’s not just airport customers who use the service, but many of the airport’s nearly 20,000 employees, too.
If demand continues to rise, what will that mean for SEPTA’s Regional Rail line at the airport? Taxis have already seen their numbers plummet in terms of airport rides, said Ron Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of PA, which has been fighting Uber in Philadelphia since its ridesharing option arrived in the city in 2014. Now, he rarely goes to find fares at the airport. “I take my chances in the city,” he said. (We’re waiting on the Airport get numbers on ridership.) In the future, might low ridership on the SEPTA Airport line cause SEPTA to not make appropriate investments to the service?
Todd Wolfson, who cofounded the Media Mobilizing Project, an advocacy organization that has fought to holding tech giants like Comcast accountable to the city, said he thinks it’s problematic for a public institution to subsidize Uber’s service by building parking lots for the company.
Wolfson, who also sits on the board of the Taxi Workers Alliance of PA, pointed to a recent BBC article that wondered if Uber was getting “too vital to fail,” as more and more municipalities across the country rely on the service as a creative solution to city problems, like a lack of parking spaces or poor public transportation.
We’re curious to see if the Airport pays an outside firm to regulate Uber and Lyft rides, the way it pays Parkway Corporation to oversee taxis and limos at the airport.
None of the parties would share what the terms for the new agreement are, since it’s still being finalized. Flannery said it would be done “shortly.” Airport Chief Revenue Officer James Tyrell is leading the negotiations, and on Uber’s side, it’s the company’s Pennsylvania General Manager Jennifer Lee Krusius who also negotiated the company’s agreement with Pittsburgh International Airport that went live in 2015.
Uber and Lyft’s negotiations with the Philadelphia Airport follow a national trend, as the Wall Street Journal reported that the companies are “aggressively” negotiating agreements with airports across the country. It’s another example of a way that tech companies are becoming ingrained in the city’s fabric and bureaucracy.