SPLASHED ACROSS the back of SEPTA buses throughout the city are huge advertisements inviting onlookers to join Philadelphia's UberX fleet. The only hitch with these slick ads, which promise drivers an easy buck, is that driving for UberX in Philadelphia is illegal. Uber's advertisement flies in the face of municipal law, yet for some reason, the law-and-order types that dominate Pennsylvania's Legislature, like Sen. Camera Bartolotta, have decided to reward this illicit behavior by submitting SB 984, a bill that legalizes UberX in Philly. The message here - and one we are used to in our broken political system - is if you break the law but have money, we will amend the law to fit your interests. As president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, I see Uber's advertisement and their flagrant disregard of our laws as a microcosm of the problems Uber presents for the riding public, drivers and the city as a whole.
Because of their popular app, the dominant narrative is that Uber is a smart, forward-looking and innovative company. The truth however, is that Uber's business model depends on an uneven playing field and completely unregulated transportation system to survive. When a cab driver picks up a customer and drivers her from Center City to Strawberry Mansion, there are multiple regulations that dictate almost every aspect of the trip from the facade and interior of the cab to how customers can pay for the ride. UberX drivers however, are exempted from all, or almost all, of those regulations.
Consider some of the more problematic aspects of SB 984. According to the bill, UberX drivers are exempt from servicing people with disabilities. The bill also allows UberX vehicles to be up to 10 years old while accumulating over 350,000 miles. UberX drivers only need their licenses to be checked once every three years, and there would be no regulation on who can inspect UberX vehicles. UberX vehicles will carry minimal liability insurance, as drivers will be covered for $5,000 and passengers for $25,000. The bill also allows UberX vehicles from other states to operate on our streets. And finally, and perhaps most egregiously, there would be no enforcement. Both the Public Utility Commission and PPA must get permission from Uber before they can impound a vehicle or place a driver out of service.
Ultimately, SB 984 will create a two-tier transportation system in Philadelphia: a hyper-regulated taxi system and a completely deregulated UberX system. But the problem extends beyond cab drivers. With no regulations or enforcement, we will see an industry with more accidents, crime and other problems. Moreover, this unregulated arrangement creates an unfair ecosystem that makes it virtually impossible for cab drivers to survive.
While a few cab drivers have joined UberX, the solution to this problem is not to abandon the flawed taxicab system for UberX as Uber's model is very bad for workers. Hillary Clinton recognized this problem when she called out Uber as part of a "gig economy" that is "raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future." If we separate the Uber app from other aspects of their business model, we are left with a feudal working environment that is deeply exploitative. Workers receive no guaranteed hours, no workers' compensation, no pension nor any of the other benefits that many of today's workers enjoy. These conditions lead to an extremely high turnover rate. Uber's own data shows that 11 percent of new drivers stop driving within a month, and about 50 percent are gone within the first year. Ultimately, UberX is dominated by part-time drivers that only work during the rush hour. And as more UberX drivers consolidate around rush hour, traditional taxis are forced into the airport and other transportation hubs and taxi drivers begin working longer hours for less money. We see it clearly, what Uber represents is a race to the bottom.
From the beginning, Philadelphia leaders recognized the problems with UberX and banned them, but now some members of the Pennsylvania Legislature are looking to reward Uber's illicit behavior by passing SB 984. The people of Philadelphia, however, know better than to fall for smoke and mirrors. The Uber model puts the riding public at greater risk and ends up taking money out of the hands of hard working cab drivers, and putting that money in the hands of people that are financially invested in Uber. As cab drivers, we are committed to a better, more efficient taxi system for Philadelphia. And we are doing our part to make that a reality by creating an app and a worker-owned dispatch service that is convenient and comfortable. Philadelphians should reject Uber, and join us in fighting for a system that places a premium on rider comfort as well as workers' protections.
Ronald Blount is president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania.