One of the most disappointing aspects of being involved in politics is the tone one consistently encounters. Differing opinions are rarely given the benefit of the doubt.
Do you have nuanced views on environmental issues? You’re either a tree-hugging wingnut or you’re leading the charge to raze Earth’s rainforests.
Do you disagree with a given party line on immigration? You either don’t want Americans to be safe or you’re a racist.
For too many, the extreme margins of any given issue are all that exist – you’re “pro” or you’re “anti.” Of course, upon further examination, even the most extreme views are often far more nuanced than they might seem. Policy stances are rarely actually a result of outright bad faith. But recent developments in Philadelphia have proven to be a rather dramatic exception to the rule.
Ridesharing company Uber is back in the headlines in Philadelphia after the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission last week announced an $11.4 million fine against the company. The commission would no doubt maintain that the fine represents incredible generosity, since the regulatory body had originally wanted Uber to pay nearly $50 million for ostensibly operating illegally (i.e., having the gall to offer an alternative to cab companies) within Philadelphia. The story comes at a time when some observers are heralding new legislation as the solution to a long standoff over ridesharing in Philadelphia. But this is a rare instance in which Philadelphia regulators do not deserve the benefit of the doubt, as many local officials’ responses to the rise of ridesharing have taken anti-competitive crony capitalism to – and I truly don’t say this lightly – near-villainous extremes.
Consider the case of Raymond Reyes. When Reyes began driving for Uber in 2014, it was his sole source of income. So his devastation was understandable when, one evening, upon dropping two customers safely at their destination in Northeast Philadelphia, Reyes found Philadelphia police officers waiting for him alongside representatives from the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA). Reyes was accused of operating an illegal taxi, his personal car was impounded for nearly three weeks and his only source of income was gone.
Reyes’ story is not the only one of its kind. Far from a neutral desire to ensure a simple, fair regulatory framework, regulators in Philadelphia have unabashedly abused their positions both to block transportation network companies’ ability to conduct business and to harass ridesharing drivers personally.
Many localities have struggled to keep up with the emergence of Uber and Lyft, due to the plodding nature of bureaucracies filled with folks for whom working on a 30-year-old Commodore Amiga is just another day at the office. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has greeted the rise of ridesharing as one might expect the city to greet a surge in gang violence.
Since Uber introduced its services in Pennsylvania in 2014, the campaign against the company by allies of the city’s firmly entrenched (to put it lightly) cab companies was both organized and fierce. A month before the company was scheduled to begin operating in Philadelphia, the general counsel for the PPA, Dennis Weldon, was already hard at work, actively campaigning in support of an initiative in the Legislature that would carve out an exemption for Philadelphia – blocking Uber from operating in the state’s largest city.
“FYI. The House is the problem. We all need to focus there, hard. Is your guy OK?” Weldon wrote in an email to the cofounder of a local taxi company. The emails were later leaked. A few days after his initial message, Weldon continued his strategy session, suggesting how best to prevent Uber from operating:
Again, word is that the House is more resistant to a Philly carve out. I think this is an area where your lobbyist can bring some real world info to the members as to the impact this bill will have on the legally operating medallion business. Just my $.02, your lobbyist may see a different path
Included in the emails – which display the sort of shameless corruption most Americans are only accustomed to seeing while binging House of Cards – are references to concerted efforts by everyone from the director of the PPA’s taxicab and limousine division, all the way up to the PPA’s executive director.
Contrary to the assertions of Alex Friedman, the “totally reasonable” president of the Pennsylvania Taxi Association who also is counted among the participants in the leaked PPA correspondence, Uber is not “exactly the same menace” as “a terroristic act like ISIS invading the Middle East.” Nor, presumably, are the 700,000-plus Philadelphians who have used Uber since its debut doing so due to some deep-seated commitment to automotive jihad. Instead, the city’s residents are being offered a service they view as superior to an entrenched monopoly that remains content to beat would-be competitors into submission, rather than improving their own level of service to remain competitive. Basketball fans might recognize it as the “hack-a-Shaq” strategy, reimagined: if you can’t stop a dominant player through legitimate means, intentionally foul him to prevent him from being able to shoot at all.
It is no surprise that Philadelphia received the lowest score out of the 50 cities graded for the R Street Institute’s annual Ridescore project, which ranks the friendliness of localities’ regulatory frameworks toward ridesharing and other transportation-for-hire services. While other cities that had received low scores in previous years had begun to change their ways, according to the latest report, the City of Brotherly Love stood alone in its refusal to adapt to modernity. Philadelphia’s “failure to improve has left it alone at the bottom as the only city to receive a failing grade” on friendliness to ridesharing.
State Rep. Bob Godshall, R-Souderton, who chairs the Consumer Affairs Committee in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, has asked all involved parties to present a compromise on the latest piece of legislation by today, April 27. But given its history of aggressively seeking to choose winners and losers using government resources, it is unlikely the PPA’s efforts to sink evenhanded ridesharing legislation are over, despite the body’s hollow statement that its only “goal is to ensure public safety.” Philadelphians would be well-advised to keep an eye on the progress of the legislation, recognizing that the only outcome of this protracted battle that ultimately would benefit the city’s residents is a reasonable regulatory framework that offers maximum consumer choice and robust, equal competition.