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How Uber Provided Short-Term Solutions and Long-Term Problems

 |  July 5, 2024

By: Surya Gowda (ProMarket)

When American cities faced challenges like broken transit, underemployment, and racial discrimination in the 2010s, Uber promised solutions. Founded in 2010, the rideshare company offered hope to commuters frustrated with unreliable public transportation, drivers seeking flexible side jobs to support their families, and minorities who struggled to catch cabs due to racial profiling. But did Uber ultimately create more problems than it solved?

In their new book, Disrupting D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City, Georgetown University postdoctoral fellow Katie J. Wells, City University of New York professor Kafui Attoh, and George Washington University professor Declan Cullen argue that it did. Based on interviews with gig workers, policymakers, Uber lobbyists, and community organizers, the authors explain how Uber provided temporary fixes to transportation issues but also created or worsened problems like discrimination against riders of color and inadequate labor protections for gig workers. They contend that relying on private companies to address public service gaps diminishes the expectations and demands on local governments, leading to a dependence on these firms and overlooking the erosion of public governance.

ProMarket interviewed Wells to discuss Uber’s promises to cities, whether it fulfilled them, and how it managed its relationships with local governments. The conversation also explored what it would take to ensure Uber’s presence benefits cities and how to reimagine urban governance and politics.

Surya Gowda: Your book is titled Disrupting D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City. How has Uber changed local government operations in Washington, D.C., and beyond?

Katie J. Wells: In the U.S., Uber has been involved in state preemption, moving away from decentralized government decision-making. Decentralized government allows localities to make decisions on issues like commuter taxes, congestion fees, or levies for public schools. Uber has opposed this by preventing localities from setting minimum wages or data-sharing requirements.

Uber drivers generate a vast amount of data, which has been used for projects like assessing the health of the San Francisco Bay Bridge infrastructure. However, as Uber’s CEO admitted, this data also creates a personalized pay system, where pay is determined by real-time conditions, market competition, and driver history, undermining the principle of equal pay for equal work. For example, if Chicago wanted to ensure equal pay for the same labor, Uber has historically opposed such local authority and often sought state intervention to eliminate it…