The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia has been a logistical nightmare. The Pennsylvania Convention Center and most major hotels are located in the busy city center just steps from City Hall. But the actual convention is happening miles away at the Wells Fargo Center, surrounded by metal barricades and with most driving and walking routes choked by Secret Service mandates.
One clear winner in the challenge of transportation for the tens of thousands of delegates, party staffers, journalists, volunteers and workers to and from the convention has been the ride-sharing company Uber. Barred from operating in Philadelphia until just two weeks before the convention, the story of how Uber wound its way into a cozy spot at the Democratic convention is illustrative of the Democratic Party’s contempt for labor and the economic interests of working-class people.
Rather than just being a backdrop for the convention, it is worth examining how the city has struggled with poverty, low wages and gentrification and how the story of Uber plays into it. The Philadelphia Inquirer examined the extent of “deep poverty” in the city — which it defines as an “income of 50 percent or less of the poverty rate” — and found that Philadelphia had “the highest rate of deep poverty among America’s 10 biggest cities.” The reason for this depressing statistic, the paper said, might be that “the city has a greater fraction of its population detached from the labor market than do many other cities.”
The Philadelphia Parking Authority sets the rates for taxi drivers in the city, so those who complain that Philly taxis are too pricey should remember that the prices are not up to the driver. But the parking authority does not impose the same rates on drivers for Uber’s UberX service, who also are exempt from most of the regulations and fees imposed on taxi workers. (Uber’s luxury UberBLACK service, by contrast, has been allowed to operate in the city because it is a limousine service that follows the same regulations as other limousine companies.)
Rebecca Hammell works in downtown Philadelphia at Liberty Resources Inc. and the Philly Fair Ride Coalition and shared with me the whole sordid story of Uber, the Democratic National Convention and Philadelphia. Most taxi drivers in the city are “people making under minimum wage, mostly people of color, probably majority immigrant population,” she told me. In contrast, most UberX drivers own their own vehicles and drive into the city from the suburbs. Still, both sets of drivers are hugely underpaid — because of the high fees that the city charges taxi drivers and because Uber sets rates too low and then takes a large cut from its drivers.
For months now, elected officials in the Pennsylvania Statehouse have been considering a complex piece of legislation that would have fairly legalized Uber in Philadelphia. Hammell, who is a disability rights activist, has been involved in the fight to make taxis accessible for the disabled, and part of the argument against Uber included the lack of accessibility. Additionally, Uber’s offerings of cheaper rides require the use of smartphone technology, which leaves out poor residents who are less likely to own an iPhone or Android.
But just before state officials went on recess, they tabled the bill to regulate Uber. Then, according to Hammell, “the Philadelphia Parking Authority went behind closed doors with Uber and made a secret back-room deal,” which amounts to the city “not taking any enforcement steps against Uber between now and September 30.” Of course, the deal was struck just in time for the Democratic National Convention. “The Parking Authority has turned its head away from Uber’s multiple transgressions while continuing to regulate the taxi industry very heavily,” Hammell said, clearly disgusted with the city’s double standards.
But Uber was also busy negotiating with the Democratic National Committee directly to not just be present in the city but to gain special access to the convention — access that other ride-sharing companies and traditional taxi companies are not getting. Fortune explained that Uber lobbied both the Democrats and Republicans earlier this year to “provide a dedicated fleet of complimentary vehicles to ferry VIPs” in exchange for “an exclusive car lot inside the outer security perimeter.”
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