Uber the Unfinable

uber-badge

Photo: Kristi Petrillo/The Declaration

By Jack Grauer

City Councilman and Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) board member Al Taubenberger said Uber clients last year mistook him for an Uber driver. They hopped into his car, parked outside City Hall. Taubenberger concluded a January PPA hearing with this story.

This wasn’t the best read of a room, as hearing attendees were primarily cab drivers facing the possible destruction of their industry by Uber.

A group representing 80% of Philly’s cab industry sued PPA last year, alleging the Authority has consistently and massively failed to deal with Uber’s Philly debut. And this failure by the PPA has cost industry workers about $558 million in revenue.

Plaintiffs argue PPA has held Philly cab firms to different, stricter rules than firms like Uber in terms of inspection standards, safety and other issues. “Transportation network companies” (TNCs) like Uber also pay less tax than their traditionally run counterparts.

Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission initially ruled that Uber owed $50 million for operating illegally in the state. But Uber ruled in turn that pissant state bureaucrats don’t tell Uber how this stuff goes.

The Commission later reduced the fine to $11.3 million, defining Uber’s sins as administrative in nature as they’ve caused no physical harm.

The PPA initially puffed a little about Uber’s expansion to Philly by impounding drivers’ cars andtrying to levy a $1,000 per-day fine against the firm for operating illegally in the city. According to the complaint filed by Philly cab drivers, however, Uber ultimately paid:

$350,000 in exchange for the PPA’s agreement to resolve all disputes with Uber, drop an additional $700,000 in fines owed by Uber and allow Uber to operate legally in Philadelphia while the PPA works with the Pennsylvania legislature to permanently legalize TNC’s. Under the agreement, the PPA also agreed to ‘suspend all enforcement’ against Uber and its affiliates.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick met privately with PPA’s board at least once to facilitate these negotiations.

It’s in this context that the joke about a Councilman mistaken for an Uber driver becomes an allegory. This is basically how Uber has treated local authorities: like a convenient, cost-efficient way to get where they need to go.

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Taxis gather in a parking lot outside Philadelphia International Airport. Photo: Kristi Petrillo/The Declaration

PPA had as of this past October collected “no fines or assessment monies from Uber,” according to deposition former PPA Chairman Vince Fenerty provided for the Philly cab industry’s lawsuit.

Fenerty in his deposition alsosaid he didn’t know how many Uber or Lyft cars operated in Philly, or how many rides they provide within city limits. He denied specific knowledge of the financial losses the cab industry has sustained since Uber’s arrival.

Depositions by Fenerty and others were blocked from public access after the Declaration obtained them. The Court shouldrelease redacted versions soon.

The state has proven only a slightly better Uber-wrangler than the PPA. Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission initially ruled that Uber owed $50 million for operating illegally in the state. But again, Uber ruled in turn that pissant state bureaucrats don’t tell Uber how this stuff goes.

The Commission later reduced the fine to $11.3 million, defining Uber’s sins as administrative in nature as they’ve caused no physical harm. Litigation regarding the fine is ongoing.

Only the feds have enjoyed some recent success in the Uber-wrangle. They caught the firm placing deceptive advertisements. Uber placed Craigslist ads in 14 cities nationwide. In those ads, they promised higher rates than what drivers actually made, according to a complaint for a permanent injunction by the Federal Trade Commission.

The ads promised Philly Uber drivers $25 hourly: among the highest listed in any city named. Fewer than 10% of Philly drivers made the $25 hourly promised in the ads: one of the lowest promise-keeping rates to any city discussed in terms of hourly pay.

 

The Federal Trade Commission didn’t respond to the Declaration’s request to see the data used to evidence these claims. Uber settled the Commission’s allegations for $20 million last week.

Returning now to Philly, the PPA has adopted yet another set of temporary rules regarding TNCs in accordance with an order by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, which legalized such firms at the state level in November of last year.

It was Wolf’s genius idea to have the PPA tax operations like Uber at 1.4% of their revenue and then put 66.6% of what they get into Philly’s School District, according a House of Appropriations fiscal note.

The PPA alreadyheld $43.2 million in liabilities due to the City of Philadelphia and the School District as of March 2016.

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Photo: A taxi driver addresses the PPA’s board at their January 27 board meeting. Photo: Jack Grauer/The Declaration

After The Philadelphia Business Journalclaimed the PPA “came off tone deaf” at their last hearing, Councilman Taubenberger at the most recent one said he’d ride with an attending taxi driver to get their perspective on these issues.

The driver called Uber a “dictatorship in the country” at the meeting. “They’re doing whatever they can and no one can touch them. Nobody,” they added.

Editor’s note: This story has been amended to reflect that litigation in this matter is ongoing, not negotiations. – DS

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There is one comment

  1. JB

    Uber treats their drivers like they’re less than human (to say it nicely). Their email Customer Service department is horrible, so bad that they consistently use cookie cutter form email responses for all their driver email correspondence. Maybe someone should try getting a grass-roots workers union movement started….just a thought.

    Like

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