IN THE WIDENING war over the future of high-tech ride-sharing in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter is leaning toward the hipsters against the bureaucrats.
After a tumultuous weekend in which the UberX ride-sharing app launched in the city and immediately five drivers' cars were impounded in an undercover sting by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, Nutter told reporters at City Hall that he backs the new service as an option for getting around town - with some qualifiers.
"I am supportive of Uber and Lyft being in Philadelphia, being here legally, operating within the requirements of the law," Nutter said yesterday. But he urged the San Francisco-based Uber - already in 110 U.S. cities - to work out its differences with the PPA, which says the ride-sharing service is nothing more than an illegal hack-cab operation.
For Nutter, the remarks were a chance to make clear that City Hall has little control over the UberX controversy, because the PPA - which regulates cabs, including the medallion permits that go for half a million dollars - is a state agency. But his words also suggested that lower-cost, smartphone-based ride-sharing - hugely popular in cities that attract the young and upwardly mobile - is critical to Philadelphia marketing itself as a city that's not stuck in the past.
"It seems to me that rather than the Parking Authority interfering with or blocking an Uber or a Lyft" - a competitor not yet in the city - "how about both sides sit down and figure out how to function in a 21st-century environment here in Philadelphia and really focus on customers and what the customers' needs are?" he said. "Philly is a big city and should have as many quality transportation options as possible."
But if anything, PPA officials seemed to double down in their anti-UberX crusade, with officials noting that - contrary to a comment by Nutter about the service as a source of city jobs - four of the five drivers of impounded Uber cars who also were given an $1,000 ticket in the sting live outside Philadelphia.
PPA executive director Vince Fenerty said in an interview that one of the ticketed drivers seemed to speak no English, and that another got lost and inadvertently took the undercover agents on "a joyride" trying to find a destination on Front Street.
"It's not a transportation carrier - it's someone coming from their home using their own car to be a hack cab. That's totally different," Fenerty said. "They're illegal and I'm going to keep impounding their cars."
Another Uber service - UberBLACK, which involves licensed limousine drivers - has been operating legally in the city for a while. The firm has unsuccessfully pushed during 2014 for state legislation that would make UberX legal here, but it decided abruptly to begin service this weekend - with a free-ride promotion - after an insurance company abruptly halted coverage on about 25 percent of the city's conventional cabs.
Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett said in an interview that the company went ahead with the launch because of the insurance crisis and because consumers "have been clamoring for better choices and more choices." He said Uber stands behind its ticketed drivers and will pay all their related costs, adding that it was a little surprised at PPA's response, which in at least one case appeared to involve an assist from mounted Philadelphia police.
"We didn't expect riot gear and horses," Bennett said.