How Uber is driv­ing trans­porta­tion democ­racy

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - OPINION - ALEX ROSENBLAT

Uber is pop­u­lar with con­sumers, and it lever­ages them as po­lit­i­cal con­stituents, re­fram­ing le­gal con­flicts as bat­tles over con­sumer choice.

We must con­sider the trade­offs be­tween in­vest­ing in pub­lic tran­sit or ced­ing ground to mass pri­vate op­er­a­tions

Tech­nol­ogy ethno­g­ra­pher and author of Uber­land: How Al­go­rithms are Rewrit­ing the Rules of Work. She is a re­searcher at the Data & So­ci­ety Re­search In­sti­tute.

In Van­cou­ver, one of the few ma­jor Cana­dian ci­ties where Uber does not pro­vide ser­vices, the ride-hail­ing app is al­ready a source of ten­sion. The ab­sence of Uber in a met­ro­pol­i­tan area is a wrin­kle on that city’s rep­u­ta­tion, a sign that it lags its more pro­gres­sive peers. So in Van­cou­ver, the com­pany strate­gi­cally signed drivers up to the app years ago, en­sur­ing it’s ready to launch at the right mo­ment.

In fact, in most ci­ties, such as Toronto, Uber ex­pands in a le­gal grey zone – with­out a per­mit to op­er­ate, es­chew­ing reg­u­la­tions de­signed for taxi com­pa­nies – by ar­gu­ing that it is, in­stead, a tech­nol­ogy com­pany. Uber is a chameleon, be­com­ing what it needs to be at dif­fer­ent times, in dif­fer­ent places, but the prom­ises it makes to drivers and to the pub­lic can be mis­lead­ing. For ex­am­ple, in 2014-15, it ad­ver­tised that its drivers’ me­dian in­come in New York was US$90,000 a year. It was an ap­peal­ing claim: Uber promised to scale en­trepreneur­ship for the masses with tech­nol­ogy in the af­ter­math of the Great Re­ces­sion, when peo­ple had lost their jobs and ci­ties were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ur­ban blight from fore­clo­sure crises. At a time of eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity, it seemed to of­fer a brighter path to the mid­dle class. But the U.S. Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion found that less than 10 per cent of Uber drivers ac­tu­ally earned US$90,000 a year, so it brought a com­plaint against the com­pany for re­cruit­ing drivers with ex­ag­ger­ated earn­ings claims across many ci­ties. Uber set­tled for US$20-mil­lion.

As a tech­nol­ogy ethno­g­ra­pher and re­searcher, I ob­served Uber drivers at work from mid-2014 through the win­ter of 2018, across more than 25 ci­ties and 8,000 kilo­me­tres in the United States and Canada. And by ob­serv­ing the work­place cul­ture they built in lo­cal and na­tional on­line fo­rums, where I fol­lowed some 300,000 mem­bers col­lec­tively, I saw pat­terns start to emerge. What I’ve ob­served is a cross-sec­tion of ex­pe­ri­ences that il­lus­trate how the com­pany evolves over time – and how it can short­change its early al­lies in the long run. In 2018, econ­o­mist Lawrence Mishel of the Eco­nomic Pol­icy In­sti­tute sur­mised that driver com­pen­sa­tion av­er­ages US$11.77 an hour af­ter de­duct­ing Uber fees and ve­hi­cle ex­penses from pas­sen­ger fares. And some drivers I spoke with con­sider it a “good bad job” com­pared with their other op­tions, such as work­ing in fast food. Even if some of Uber’s big­ger prom­ises fal­ter, its drivers con­tinue to reap ben­e­fits – from the sched­ul­ing flex­i­bil­ity to the so­cial con­nec­tions they make with pas­sen­gers. Strik­ing the right bal­ance when it comes to reg­u­lat­ing Uber can be tricky be­cause there are so many stake­hold­ers in its fu­ture and be­cause Uber af­fects them dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent stages.

Austin, Tex., and Cal­gary were at a sim­i­lar stage in 2016, when they tried to reg­u­late ride-hail­ing, in both cases lead­ing to stand-offs. Austin tried to im­ple­ment fin­ger­print-based back­ground checks for drivers through a mu­nic­i­pal or­di­nance, and Cal­gary tried to im­ple­ment a by­law that would re­quire Uber to pay an an­nual li­cens­ing fee of $1,753 and a fee of $220 per driver.

Rather than com­ply, Uber and its com­peti­tor Lyft abruptly left Austin, leav­ing drivers and pas­sen­gers stranded. A fac­tory might threaten to re­lo­cate over­seas if it doesn’t get tax breaks from a lo­cal gov­ern­ment, but re­lo­cat­ing a fac­tory is a big un­der­tak­ing. Ride-hail­ing gi­ants can just turn off the ser­vice.

Uber is pop­u­lar with con­sumers, and it lever­ages them as po­lit­i­cal con­stituents, re­fram­ing le­gal con­flicts as bat­tles over con­sumer choice. The com­pany sent robo-texts to pas­sen­gers in Austin urg­ing them to vote to re­peal the or­di­nance. “Melissa, this is Cameron from Uber. Rideshar­ing is on the bal­lot & early vot­ing ends to­mor­row! Can we count on your vote FOR Prop 1 to keep Uber in Austin?” Uber sent so many of th­ese mes­sages that it faced a class-ac­tion law­suit for al­legedly vi­o­lat­ing the Tele­phone Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act. In Cal­gary, it urged users to sign a pe­ti­tion to be sub­mit­ted to city coun­cil with mes­sages such as: “This is your chance to stand with us and send a mes­sage to your elected of­fi­cials that Cal­gary de­serves a new set of trans­porta­tion choices. Con­sumers love Uber be­cause the taxi in­dus­try doesn’t come close to of­fer­ing the same con­ve­nience and re­li­a­bil­ity.” The city even­tu­ally ad­justed the by­law, and four months af­ter it re­launched in Cal­gary in De­cem­ber, 2016, Uber touted hav­ing 70,000 rid­ers and 1,500 drivers – num­bers that seemed to prove Uber is what peo­ple want.

The com­pany’s omi­nous threat to rally con­sumers (who love the con­ve­nience of its ser­vice) against reg­u­la­tors (who rein in the com­pany) is a gam­bit that may give reg­u­la­tors pause. Uber uses the lan­guage of tech­nol­ogy to ma­nip­u­late reg­u­la­tions as well.

By self-iden­ti­fy­ing as a Sil­i­con Val­ley tech­nol­ogy com­pany, it has ar­gued that it isn’t cov­ered un­der the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act be­cause it’s not a trans­porta­tion com­pany, so it is not ob­li­gated to pro­vide ac­ces­si­ble ser­vices for pas­sen­gers with dis­abil­i­ties. This lan­guage comes from the cul­ture of Sil­i­con Val­ley, where in­ter­net com­pa­nies such as Face­book and Google claim their plat­forms are neu­tral and their ser­vices, from the news feed to search re­sults, are cu­rated by ob­jec­tive al­go­rithms. Uber claims it has a hands-off re­la­tion­ship with drivers, but it ac­tu­ally col­lects granular de­tails on their be­hav­iour, man­ages them with al­go­rithms and ex­per­i­ments on their pay.

In all the ways that drivers are sub­ject to al­go­rith­mic ma­nip­u­la­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion by “neu­tral” al­go­rithms, we can see how con­sumers of Sil­i­con Val­ley ser­vices can be taken ad­van­tage of, too. Face­book, for ex­am­ple, ex­per­i­mented on users’ emo­tions by dis­play­ing sad­der posts to some and hap­pier posts to oth­ers in their news feeds. Their study sug­gests that peo­ple are vul­ner­a­ble to mass emo­tional con­ta­gion.

But the real im­pact of the study was ev­i­dent in the pub­lic out­rage: Face­book re­vealed that the al­go­rith­mic news feed could be ma­nip­u­la­tive, and users were up­set over be­ing treated like guinea pigs.

Some­times I get the feel­ing of whiplash, jump­ing from ci­ties where Uber’s ar­rival is ex­cit­ing and im­mi­nent to places where the com­pany is the sub­ject of sus­tained protest. How drivers ex­pe­ri­ence the com­pany usu­ally de­pends on what stage Uber is at in their city; for ex­am­ple, while hun­dreds of drivers in New York gath­ered in front of Uber’s lo­cal head­quar­ters to protest rate cuts in 2016, drivers in Mon­treal – who used the banned app furtively, of­ten pre­tend­ing to of­fer rides to friends – were al­lied with the com­pany. While many ci­ties strug­gle to reg­u­late ride-hail­ing, Uber ap­pears to be a bit more con­cil­ia­tory as it evolves, and the Cana­dian reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment may be a bit more de­mand­ing or less vul­ner­a­ble to the log­ics of dis­rup­tion. Que­bec’s pi­lot pro­gram, for ex­am­ple, re­quires drivers to un­dergo more train­ing and tighter back­ground checks. And al­though Uber threat­ened to leave the city, it even­tu­ally con­ceded.

Where ride-hail­ing has be­come en­trenched, pre­dictable pat­terns have fol­lowed. First, the Uber model is cited for po­ten­tial labour law vi­o­la­tions around the world over al­le­ga­tions that it mis­clas­si­fies drivers as in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors. Like many com­pa­nies, it has also been cited for mis­han­dling data, pri­vacy and se­cu­rity com­plaints, which af­fect both drivers and pas­sen­gers. Then com­plaints that af­fect trans­porta­tion more widely fol­low suit; for ex­am­ple, a re­cent study sug­gests that ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies worsen con­ges­tion.

In New York, which is in one of the most evolved stages of Uber­land, 2018 saw a rash of taxi driver sui­cides, high­light­ing not only the fi­nan­cial blow Uber and Lyft pose to medal­lion own­ers, but the de­clin­ing wages for all drivers in both ride-hail­ing and taxi work.

The suc­cess of ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies prompts us to con­sider the trade­offs be­tween in­vest­ing in pub­lic trans­porta­tion or ced­ing ground to mass pri­vate trans­porta­tion. By look­ing at the evo­lu­tion­ary stages of ride-hail­ing, we have a chance to de­fine our ideal vi­sion for such ser­vices.

En­trepreneurial reg­u­la­tors might see an op­por­tu­nity among Uber’s mis­steps to reg­u­late Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies more broadly. As Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg tes­ti­fies to Congress about the plat­form’s role in the U.S. elec­tions and crit­ics such as me­dia scholar Siva Vaid­hyanathan ar­gue that Face­book dis­rupts democ­racy, we are at a turn­ing point in de­bates about the full im­pact of tech­nol­ogy on so­ci­ety. Whether we’re dis­cussing tran­sit, democ­racy or the myr­iad other parts of our so­ci­ety that are in­ter­twined with tech­nol­ogy, we should con­sider that the power of that tech­nol­ogy is po­lit­i­cal – not neu­tral.


By po­si­tion­ing it­self as a tech­nol­ogy com­pany, rather than a taxi com­pany, Uber ex­ists in a le­gal grey zone, a chameleon able to be­come what it needs to be at dif­fer­ent times, in dif­fer­ent places, while promis­ing great things to its drivers and cus­tomers alike.

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