Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
In the backlash following President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” the sides in the ride-hailing universe are drawn more firmly than ever.
Following President Trump’s executive order suspending the U.S.-Syrian refugee program and barring travelers from several majority-Muslim countries, Uber found itself in a tricky spot. The ride-hailing company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, now serves on a business advisory council to the president. But many Uber drivers—in fact, a majority in some cities—are immigrants.
Rather than show solidarity with those drivers—as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance did with theirs, halting pick-ups at JFK Airport for an hour on Saturday evening in the name of “a working-class movement that is rooted in the defense of the oppressed”—Uber took a different path. As protestors clogged JFK’s terminals, Uber turned off surge pricing there, effectively slashing the cost of a ride.
Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.— Uber NYC (@Uber_NYC) January 29, 2017
This, according to a torrent of online critics, amounted to strike-breaking. Calls to #DeleteUber from celebrities and civilians flooded social media Saturday night and Sunday. From New York to Los Angeles, hundreds of Facebook and Twitter users posted screenshots of their impassioned Uber break-ups through the company’s online account-deletion form: “I don’t need a ride to Vichy territory you quisling scum,” read one.
In a way, the controversy was nothing new. Protests and Uber seem to go hand in hand, given the gig-economy behemoth’s union-busting tendencies. But anti-Uber ire is now hotter than ever—and the sides in the ride-hailing universe have been firmly drawn. On Sunday morning, the company’s arch-rival, Lyft, pledged to donate $1 million to the ACLU (which is actively fighting Trump’s ban in court), doubling down on its public persona as a more worker-friendly Uber alternative. The move was widely hailed by #DeleteUber-ists on social media. “Lyft was always better anyways,” was a common refrain.
In the face of the backlash, Uber went into damage-control mode, with Kalanick posting a statement to Facebook on Saturday that seemed to suggest he opposed Trump’s ban. He mentioned plans to compensate Uber drivers trapped overseas, and perhaps give Trump his two cents later this week: “[T]his ban will impact many innocent people—an issue that I will raise this coming Friday when I go to Washington for President Trump’s first business advisory group meeting.”
But the statement is unlikely to placate those who’ve removed their accounts—especially those who already frown upon Kalanick’s spot in the advisory group he alluded to. In December, addressing employees concerned about Uber’s new White House connection, the Uber CEO said the company would “partner with anyone in the world as long they’re about making transportation in cities better, creating job opportunities, making it easier to get around, getting pollution out of the air and traffic off the streets.” One might generously imagine Kalanick using his relationship with Trump to whisper in support of the immigrant workforce that sustains Uber’s operations, or policies that take single-passenger cars off roads.
History, however, has no shortage of despicable leaders who’ve sought to improve transportation as a way to massage constituent support. And it is perhaps an understatement to say that Uber has shown little interest in protecting the rights of workers, or even riders, in the past. It rose to its current $69 billion valuation by undercutting fares traditionally charged by taxis (and transit), employing a class of “independent contractors” who are not entitled to benefits or protections and skirting city regulations on matters like background checks and airport pick-up restrictions in its pursuit of growth (and, increasingly, actual profit). As with Donald Trump and his lawsuit-intensive enterprises, the legal battles and public outcry that accompany Uber’s business practices seem like features, not bugs. For a company facing multiple-dozens of lawsuits (most recently, Uber agreed to pay $20 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission suit over misleading driver-compensation claims), a regulation-hating president may be their greatest ally.
One could argue that hailing an Uber has always been something of a political act—by taking a ride, passengers “vote” for Uber’s policies and business model with their dollars, even if they’re not particularly aware of the implications. #DeleteUber may raise a certain level of public consciousness in regards to that fact. But as the landscape of urban mobility redraws along partisan lines, fresh arrivals to the anti-Uber camp should know this: The best way to support immigrants and low-income workers who could be exploited by a private transportation service isn’t by downloading a competitor’s app. Now, and always, the most radical statement is riding the bus.