Pando

This month in serious ridesharing allegations: #DeleteUber special edition

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 1, 2017

From The Travis Shrugged Desk

My monthly “ridesharing wrap-up” series is supposed to shine a light on how ride-hailing startups can endanger people.

There are usually two sections: one for all the news stories about drivers harming their passengers, and the other devoted to drivers who were harmed themselves. It’s an easy way to catalog the sexual assaults, discrimination, and anti-ride-hailing attacks from taxi drivers in one easily digested post.

This month is different. This month it’s too hard to ignore the acts of a ride-hailing company itself — Uber — instead of focusing on the individuals who misbehave on its platform. Here’s why.

Uber tries to undermine protests (or at least profit from them)

By now you’ve probably seen the hashtag advising people to delete their Uber accounts. Pando readers know those people are several years late to the party — Uber’s had problems with regulators, been negligent with its background checks, and tried to intimidate journalists. So if people could accept those problems, what pushed them to finally #deleteUber in January?

The answer lies with Uber’s efforts to undermine protests of President Donald Trump’s malevolent, cowardly, and illegal ban on immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries. Trump’s executive order resulted in the detainment of young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and others in airports throughout the United States. These detainees were sometimes held without access to lawyers — let alone their loved ones  — and had to wonder if they would even be allowed back in the country. That’s to say nothing of the prospective immigrants and hopeful refugees who are banned from America for at least 90 or 120 days. (Or, for Syrians, indefinitely.)

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance protested the ban on January 28 by suspending all pickups from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport from 6pm to 7pm. Uber then said at 7:36pm that it was suspending its surge pricing, which automatically raises the cost of hailing a driver at busy times, at JFK. Many saw this as a form of strikebreaking and deleted their Uber accounts in protest. The company later said that it wasn’t trying to break up the strike and that its tweet was “was not meant to break up any strike” and it merely “wanted people to know they could use Uber to get to and from JFK at normal prices, especially last night.” Disabling surge pricing was... innocent.

It’s worth noting that Uber’s tweet was sent after the NYTWA strike was supposed to end. Had Uber wanted to disrupt the protest, it could have turned off surge pricing right at 6pm. But that doesn’t mean its decision wasn’t emblematic of the company’s ultimate loyalty to the almighty dollar. JFK was busy because many people were trying to get to the airport to show their support for the people affected by Trump’s executive order; it was probably also busy because taxi drivers couldn’t keep up with demand that resulted from their strike. Uber swooped in to gobble up as many customers as possible during a time of turmoil for many people around the world.

Not that its rival, Lyft, was any less opportunistic. The pink-mustachioed company announced that it would donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union  — which has contested Trump’s immigration ban and vowed to push back against all his rights-violating campaign promises — over the next four years. What a good public relations move! What could have possibly given them the idea?

Lyft has always seemed cuddlier than Uber (probably because of the mustache) and it gets to say that it was “defending our values” by making those donations. Of course, $250,000 a year is chump change to tech companies, and Lyft’s new popularity will almost certainly offset that investment. The difference is that the ACLU can use that $250,000 either way; Uber’s decision lined its own pockets and at least gave the appearance of undermining the taxi strike without giving anything in return.

Uber drivers are sleeping in parking lots

And make no mistake  — Uber’s decision only lined its own pockets. Its drivers have made smaller and smaller amounts of money since the platform rose to prominence. That’s why it came as little surprise when Bloomberg reported that Uber drivers have taken to sleeping in parking lots because they can’t afford to drive back home after their shifts end in rich neighborhoods. Just read how Chicago Uber driver Walter Laquian Howard spends most of his nights:

Howard has been parking and sleeping at the 7-Eleven four to five nights a week since March 2015, when he began leasing a car from Uber and needed to work more hours to make his minimum payments. Now that it’s gotten cold, he wakes up every three hours to turn on the heater. He’s rarely alone. Most nights, two to three other ride-hailing drivers sleep in cars parked next to his. It’s safe, he said, and the employees let the drivers use the restroom. Howard has gotten to know the convenience store’s staff—Daddy-O and Uncle Mike—over the past two years while driving for this global ride-hailing gargantuan, valued at $69 billion.

That valuation is endangered by Uber’s treatment of its drivers. Not because it doesn’t consider its drivers employees  — it doesn’t  — but because they aren’t making enough money. Uber keeps reducing the cost of hailing a ride on its platform: Fares in New York have been cut by 35 percent since 2014. Other cities have been more drastic, with BuzzFeed reporting that rates in Detroit went from 70 cents per mile to 30 cents per mile, and even Uber admits internally that these price cuts don’t always result in higher wages for drivers. (The company publicly says that lower prices equals more customers which equals more money for drivers.) Drivers told the Observer that they make as little as $2.89 an hour with Uber; that’s far less than minimum wage.

Meanwhile, Uber has pushed subprime auto loans on people who need cars. It charges a $250 deposit and then automatically deducts weekly payments from driver’s earnings. Uber previously worked with a company called Santander on the loans, but that partnership ended when Santander was accused of illegally repossessing cars from military personnel. So then it got $1 billion from Wall Street to fund new car leases for people with bad credit. Hooray! Or, you know, not. As a 30-year-old Uber driver told Bloomberg about his experience with the program:

He leased a 2016 Toyota Corolla from Xchange in November, paying $155 a week. Two months later, Uber slashed fares nationally. Soon Hofstede had trouble keeping up with his payments. He went from making $200 in a weekend to $140 in a weekend, he said. "It got to the point that I would drive just to meet my payment," he said. "If you were short on your payment for a week it would roll onto the payment for next week. It starts adding up."

Uber’s the only winner in this situation. It gets to keep drivers under its thumb even as it reduces their pay far below what they’d earn doing literally any other job. (Except waiting tables, but even then, tips often more than make up for the difference.) Increasing the number of people using its service makes it seem more vital to transportation, convinces investors to continue throwing money at it, and keeps Uber in the public consciousness. Who cares if some drivers have to sleep in their cars to make even a fraction of what the company all-but-promises in its claims about how much people can make on its platform? Or drives just to afford the car they’re in?

Everyone who uses Uber should. These aren’t random acts of violence, like the stuff normally collected in these posts. Just like its desire to make a quick buck off the JFK taxi strike, this harmful approach to the people who allow its platform to function is part of Uber’s core fabric.

What happened on the platform

Now, here’s your regularly scheduled programming in list form. First up, drivers being bad:

And bad things happening to drivers: