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California’s Uber Hunt

eye on the news

California’s Uber Hunt

Golden State regulators and taxi companies want to bury the ridesharing company in paper. July 23, 2015
California
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The way things are going, Uber may soon face a court challenge in California over its failure to use an umlaut. The popular ridesharing startup has already been hit by an administrative law judge’s recommendation that the company pay $7.3 million in damages and suspend operation in the state. At issue: Uber’s alleged failure to provide the California Public Utilities Commission with internal data about how many customers with service animals or wheelchairs Uber drivers serve, along with time, location, and fare data.

This decision came just a month after the California Labor Commission redefined the app-based ride-hailing service’s business model. In that case, San Francisco Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick demanded that the company reimburse $4,000 worth of expenses. The commission ruled that Berwick, a transsexual who previously operated a phone sex business—Linda’s Lip Service—was a full-time-equivalent employee during four months of sporadic driving for Uber. (Berwick, now a financial consultant, expressed disappointment with the money an Uber driver makes.) The decision directly threatens Uber’s business model, in which drivers sign up as independent contractors with a minimum of the fuss and paperwork associated with modern hiring, choose their own hours, and are clearly remunerated on a piecework basis.

Last week, a U.S. district judge in San Francisco allowed a group of cab companies to proceed with a false-advertising lawsuit against Uber. The same judge also greenlit a suit against Uber claiming that it spammed potential drivers with recruitment text messages. That suit was dismissed when electronic records showed that one of the plaintiffs had begun pursuing the company herself.

Notably, complaints about Uber typically aren’t coming from customers, and even among the firm’s drivers, crusades like Berwick’s are rare. In fact, what’s striking about the various campaigns against ride-sharing is their reliance on paperwork and credentialing instead of outcomes. The CPUC, for example, doesn’t assert that Uber is harming actual handicapped people, only that the company has failed to produce paperwork that proves the absence of harm. Similarly, the cab companies’ speech-related lawsuit—which focuses on safety claims made in Uber ads—does not claim that traditional taxis are safer than Uber rides. The plaintiffs assert instead that cab drivers are subjected to more paperwork than Uber drivers.

The anti-Uber campaign’s reluctance to assess outcomes is understandable, given the public’s strong revealed preference for the company. Interest groups can complain, but drivers and customers continue to vote for Uber with their time and money. In a free country or a sane state, a clear market decision in favor of a business would be the end of the discussion. But Uber is increasingly under pressure to furnish evidence that its model works in theory as well as in practice.

The company recently commissioned Los Angeles-based BOTEC Analysis to measure service in low-income neighborhoods—a market in which anecdotal evidence already suggests that Uber’s influence has been positive. BOTEC compared UberX with taxi services in Van Nuys as well as Central and East Los Angeles. The median wait time for an UberX ride in L.A. neighborhoods was five minutes and 52 seconds; for a taxi ride, it was 14 minutes and 33 seconds. The maximum recorded wait time for UberX was 20 minutes; for a cab, 57 minutes. Despite Uber’s widely maligned practice of “surge pricing”—a concession to the law of supply and demand that is for some reason considered outrageous—UberX also soundly beat traditional cabs on price, with a median cost per ride of $6.28, versus $15 for taxis. Surge pricing didn’t even produce a higher maximum price. UberX’s max cost per ride was $11.68, against $22 for cabs.

BOTEC is led by UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, a thoroughly un-libertarian, good-government figure. Nevertheless, Uber opponents have dinged the study as free-market propaganda from the Uber central command. SHOULD YOU TRUST UBER’S BIG NEW UBER VS. CABS STUDY? New York asks. (Answer: a definite maybe.) Meantime, L.A. Weekly wonders, “Is Uber really being straight-up about its commitment to serve folks other than young, white professionals and party people?” But defenders of the taxi status quo face an even bigger hurdle: Uber’s very existence is an advertisement for the free market. It’s an obviously less-regulated initiative that has produced measurable, positive outcomes across a wide spectrum. No wonder people hate it so much.

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