Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto says Uber must 'fight for more than profit'
April 3, 2017 3:05 PM
Operators ride inside one of Uber's self-driving SUVs in March along Penn Avenue in the Strip District.
Uber launched its self-driving car service in Pittsburgh last year. Each ride includes two Uber employees -- a safety driver and a vehicle operator.
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On Monday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto leaned on the horn, hard, in an increasingly contentious tie-up with ride-sharing service Uber. In a formal statement and a Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Peduto said that “economic disruptors” like Uber “have a moral obligation” to provide benefits to the surrounding community.
He reiterated those remarks in a Post-Gazette interview Monday evening, at one point during which he referred to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as “what’s-his-name.” He said he was drafting an agreement requiring Uber to allow drivers to purchase health insurance on a group plan, and to treat them as employees, rather than independent contractors.
If Uber “wants to get their reputation changed,” he said, “they’ll have to be a leader out of the Silicon Valley, and fight for more than profit.”
Nationally, Uber has drawn complaints over factors including its treatment of drivers and Mr. Kalanick’s brief stint serving on an advisory panel for President Donald Trump. Local critics of the company, and Mr. Peduto’s past relationship to it, welcomed the mayor’s statements. But some worried Mr. Peduto was trying to repair a car engine while it was already on the road.
“We had concerns about Uber and its relationship to the city from the beginning,” said Molly Nichols, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. “While we appreciate that the mayor is sharing his concerns, we think that should have been part of the conversation from the beginning.
“Now that a precedent has been set, it remains to be seen how much leverage the mayor has.”
Mr. Peduto himself championed Uber when it came to Pittsburgh in 2014, even as state regulators fined it millions of dollars for offering rides without permits. He also welcomed its experimental fleet of self-driving cars to city streets last year, telling The New York Times, “It’s not our role to throw up regulations or limit companies like Uber.”
He struck a much different note Monday, issuing a statement that argued, “In Pittsburgh we have a saying — if it’s not for all, it’s not for us.”
Emailed questions to an Uber spokesperson were not returned Monday, though the Wall Street Journal quoted a company statement that it was “proud to have put Pittsburgh on the self-driving map,” in the process “creating hundreds of tech jobs and investing hundreds of millions of dollars. … We hope to continue to have a positive presence in Pittsburgh.”
In an interview, Mr. Peduto said a number of factors had soured his enthusiasm, including a dispute over Uber’s sponsorship of a national conference and its participation in a $50 million federal grant application.
But he said he’d also become concerned about the fate of drivers who would be displaced by self-driving cars. He said he brought up the topic with Mr. Kalanick last year. “It was to be a big conversation that never continued,” he said. “I don’t want to be the mayor who takes us back to the 1920s,” he said, referring to an era in which local steel companies ran roughshod over workers and communities.
Mr. Peduto has been signaling a turn for some time. After a February demonstration about some company policies, Mr. Peduto issued a statement that he “share[d] the same concerns” and had shared them with Uber executives.
This week’s higher-profile statements, though, come six weeks before the May 16 Democratic primary that will almost certainly decide Mr. Peduto’s re-election. The timing has raised some eyebrows.
“It seems like he’s doing a job now he should have been trying to do the past 3½ years,” said District 1 City Councilwoman Darlene Harris, one of his challengers.
“There should have been conditions when the agreement was first made,” said Homewood minister John Welch, another primary rival. “That was a failed opportunity, so now the mayor is using this as a chance to score political points.”
Mr. Peduto has previously joked that robot cars were among the issues that could torpedo re-election. But Monday he said, “I’m up 51 points [in internal polls]. I have over $700,000 in the bank. I’ve earned the endorsement of every labor union and the Democratic Party. The last thing on my mind is how will this affect my election.”
He stood by his willingness to “hav[e] someone invest $1 billion in what will be a global industry,” but added, “Uber’s statement that they put Pittsburgh on the global map couldn’t be further from the truth. Carnegie Mellon put Pittsburgh on the global map.”
Of the experts the company has hired here, he said “a very large percentage of them are from Pittsburgh and have no desire to leave.” If Uber left, he said, those developers could find work at Ford or other companies now researching self-driving cars in the area.
Uber has shown a more civic-minded face recently. In January, it donated $10,000 to cover free rides for women to and from the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. Weeks later, when much of the city’s water supply was under a “flush and boil” advisory, Uber offered $20,000 in free rides to and from water distribution centers.
Some contend Mr. Peduto should have seen problems coming, given the company’s defiance of regulators.
“There was a lot of information out there about Uber rolling over regulations in the public interest,” said Helen Gerhardt, a transit activist and vocal Uber foe. But she said the promise of a big investment led Mr. Peduto to “enable a transportation company that refused to acknowledge its own workers.”
Erin Kramer, of advocacy group One Pennsylvania, struck a more conciliatory note. She and other activists will meet with Mr. Peduto next week to discuss their own Uber demands, which include sharing profits and data with the city.
“Wanting to be part of the future is such a tempting thing that it can overshadow what you know about the past,” Ms. Kramer said. But now, she said, “folks are paying attention to Uber’s ethics in a way they never have. And it’s on Uber to make things right.”
Daniel Moore contributed. Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.
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