The PPA Is Right About UberX

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(This post originally appeared on The Philly Post)

Thank you, Uber, for teaching our city a lesson.

Just this past week two friends of mine were out to dinner in South Philadelphia and needed a cab ride home. It was late. The restaurant was off a main road. There were no cabs around. One of my friends knew all this, so as he finished up the meal he did a very, very “bad” thing. He pulled up the Philadelphia Uber app on his iPhone and ordered an UberX vehicle. And here’s what happened.

The app was easy to use. The app worked fast. The app identified a vehicle for them. They tracked the progress of the car using the app’s GPS service. The car arrived within 10 minutes of being ordered. The car was clean. The driver was nice. He drove them to their destination. They securely paid with one click using the app. They got home safely.

According to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the company, the driver, and I guess my friends if you want to really stretch it, broke the law.

That’s because UberX has not been approved by the city like the company’s other, more expensive Uber Black service. Negotiations between the Public Utility Commission and the company have been going on for months. Finally, Uber had enough and, in defiance of the PPA, announced it was going ahead with their service last week. The PPA responded with a “sting” operation on Saturday, where they fined UberX drivers $1,000, impounded their vehicles and accused them of “aiding and abetting an unlicensed taxicab service.” The PPA has been accused of bowing to the city’s union officials and unreasonably protecting the taxi industry.

What exactly is the PPA’s beef with UberX? The service is not regulated or licensed, and the public’s safety is at risk. “UberX is a hack cab service,” PPA executive director Vincent J. Fenerty Jr said this week. “We believe the law is very clear that PPA is the sole authority for regulating” the service. And Dennis Weldon, the Authority’s general counsel, said that “… after months of unsuccessfully trying to legalize Network Transportation Services in Harrisburg, Uber’s recent announcement that it would nevertheless knowingly provide illegal taxi service in Philadelphia represents a shocking disregard for the law and public safety.”

And guess what? The PPA is right. The law is the law. Taxi services are required by the law to be licensed. Uber cannot just run a commercial service like this in the city without getting city approval. Even Democratic Mayor Nutter, who “supports them being here, legally, operating within requirements of the law” and opposes the Republican-controlled PPA, is pushing for a compromise.

But sometimes you have to fight. And stick to your guns. And even flout the law to get the law changed. And Uber is expert at doing this. The San Francisco company, and its combative CEO Travis Kalanick, has picked fights from Berlin to India to Pittsburgh to Maryland. He’s battled price-fixing complaints, accusations from competitors of deceptive sales practices, and allegations about driver and vehicle safety. The company frequently comes up against entrenched political operatives, turf-protecting unions, incompetent bureaucrats, and corrupt city officials. Philly? Forget about it!

For Kalanick, this is just another day at the office. He’s an expert at manipulating the media and gaining attention for his cause. And he’s not above pulling stunts like the one this week, which ultimately helps him achieve his long-term objectives of market share and growth.

Uber will win this battle. People overwhelmingly enjoy their service. Kalanick is offering a better alternative to our local taxis which themselves suffer with safety issues and are oftentimes driven by people who seriously make me question the PPA’s claim that all drivers “are subject to criminal background checks.” The service provides entrepreneurial opportunities for professional drivers and a safer, quicker alternative for their customers. It is a worthy competitor to our taxi industry. And the fight has just begun. The company has a track record of kicking up a fuss, getting the public behind them and getting laws changed. When there’s truly a better alternative and a leader brave enough (and egotistical enough) to fight, real change can happen.

This isn’t about taxi rides. This is a lesson about changing our old, entrenched ways. And it’s a sign that even in Philadelphia, broken systems can be fixed when the public really wants it and the right leaders are in place.

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