Pittsburgh is Getting Tired of Uber's Corporate Nonsense

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Pittsburgh boasts more bridges than any other city its size and Uber seems intent on burning every single one. After the ride-hailing company offered to test its autonomous platform in the city, Pittsburgh welcomed it with open arms. Now it’s starting to seem like it got a raw deal. Uber has become like the city’s drug-addicted teen — permitted to stay, despite very disappointing behavior and repeated broken promises. You get the sense its only one big screw-up away from being thrown out on its ass.

It hasn’t even been a full year and residents and officials are already claiming Uber has already let the city down. You have to place some of the blame on Pittsburgh for enabling Uber’s uncouth behavior, but it didn’t force it to abandon corporate citizenship. In the last nine months, Uber has withdrawn its promised support of Pittsburgh’s bid for a $50 million federal transportation grant and completely failled at creating jobs it promised struggling communities. It has also started charging fares for its driverless taxis, something the city initially assumed would be free in exchange for the company having the privilege of testing there.

The New York Times suggests many residents are upset with Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, for not solidifying these deals in writing. Peduto’s challengers in the 2017 mayoral race have criticized his relationship with the firm as a campaign tactic, though it didn’t prevent him from winning the Democratic primary.

“This was an opportunity missed,” said city controller Michael Lamb, who has requested Uber share the traffic data obtained by its autonomous vehicles.

Linda Bailey, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said Pittsburgh’s relationship with Uber should be a cautionary tale to other cities. “[Uber] is a business, and they want to make money,” she said. “With Pittsburgh, we learned we need to present the city’s needs upfront.”

The ride-sharing company has stated it wants to continue a working relationship with the city but had yet to see a draft of proposed commitments the city is seeking. As for the traffic information requests made by Lamb, Uber has agreed to provide the some of the data acquired through testing but no more than it would give any other city. Pittsburgh officials have claimed that is unacceptable, given the level of access they’ve given the company.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit, a group representing bus drivers and riders, organized a social media campaign and public protest against the company’s decision to continue airport service after taxi drivers had halted rides to protest the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Molly Nichols, executive director of the group, claimed Uber had called to ask her to cancel the protests — a request she refused. “The warning signs about Uber’s questionable business practices were all over the place, and the mayor should have recognized that and worked harder to create a partnership that was more equitable,” Nichols said.

Plenty of direct action taken against Uber has been politically motivated. CEO Travis Kalanick’s brief stint as a member of President Trump’s business advisory council seemed to be a particularly sore spot for Democrats. Criticisms against his appointment were so severe that he left the council after only a few weeks.

However, there are plenty of non-partisan issues for locals to gripe about, too. While Uber has says it has created 675 jobs in the greater Pittsburgh area and aided local organizations, many say it hasn’t lived up to its end of the perceived bargain. Even the mayor has changed his tune. “When it came to what Uber and what Travis Kalanick wanted, Pittsburgh delivered,” Mr. Peduto said. “But when it came to our vision of how this industry could enhance people, planet and place, that message fell on deaf ears.”

The Times indicated that the mayor had exchanged frequent texts with Kalanick in 2015. However, things changed in 2016 when the company withdrew its financial support for a proposal to acquire Department of Transportation grants aimed at improving the city’s transit infrastructure. Later, Peduto was billed after taking a ride in an autonomous Uber vehicle — which Kalanick had assured him would be free as a public service to the city.

[Image: Uber Technologies]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • True_Blue True_Blue on May 23, 2017

    I spent 4 years in downtown PGH, on the North Side, Mt. Oliver, Troy Hill, and Mt. Washington, respectively. There's quite a few *very* tricky avenues for a human pilot to navigate (Climax Street on Mt. Wash comes immediately to mind... mid-February especially) let alone an autonomous one. That data would be a gold mine, if it was shared. One hand isn't Washington the other.

  • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on May 23, 2017

    Another Pittsburgher here, born and raised (in the south suburbs or South Hills). Driving in the area is awful. The topography forced them to build roads where they could, not where it was beneficial and rarely in a straight line. Going 6 miles in Pittsburgh could take your 20 minutes at the least, at worst 45 minutes to an hour. There is very little "grid" to any part of Pittsburgh in any case. You might be able to make a block if you make a a few lefts, but it won't be anywhere near where you thought. Our traffic volumes are nowhere close to a large city, but since there are only 4 main arteries in or out of the city, it feels worse than it really is. Especially during any rush hour period. Throw in snow and ice, it's worse. Our mass transit is fairly bad. Our light rail only goes from the city to the South along two routes which nearly parallel each other mostly. Bus service to the airport is ridiculous. I once used only bus service to get from my house in the South to the airport. No traffic, it's 35 minutes for me to drive it. I had to walk 15 minutes along roads with no pedestrian measures ( sidewalks are not common except in newer developments younger than ~30 years old) to a bus stop along a busy road. Take the bus into town and transfer to the "Airport Flyer" which took another 40 minutes to get me to the airport. Total time was 1.5 hours and it was around $10. I've gone further for the same( or less money) on both DC and NY/NJT systems. Taxi's are only an option in the City and barely so. Trying to move around the suburbs on taxis or mass transit is pretty much impossible. So you can see why Uber chose Pittsburgh as a place to test its stuff out. Seems like a good choice except people here are resistant to change and technology. Old Pittsburgher's DO NOT like change. You are dealing, in many sections of Pittsburgh, with people that could really benefit from Uber. But you are also dealing with an older, uneducated blue collar people. People who graduated (maybe) from high school and went into the steel mills, coal mines or manufacturing (huge employers here). When those jobs left in the 80's, the people stayed behind because they couldn't and/or didn't want to leave. Some of them are probably Uber drivers now, but a good many probably only know Uber from it's bad press recently. People who give directions based on landmarks, but old landmarks. " Go dahn there an' make a left where the ol Winkys used ta be". Winkys closed 30 years ago. It seems as though the city (and county) took all of Uber at its word and it isn't turning out like they said it would. Imagine that. But it also seems that Uber, like so many of our tech companies, are double-edged swords. The prospects are fantastic, but the fallout is severe when it doesn't pan out.

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