Legal or not, Uber wants to help Philly cut losses during the papal visit
By now, you already know where you’ll be next weekend when the Holy Father lands in Philadelphia. You probably already know about of the infamous 4.7-square mile “traffic box,” recently redubbed the “Francis Festival Grounds,” and what it means to your travel arrangements. You probably also know whether or not those two days of holy mayhem will work out in your favor — spiritual, financial, or otherwise.
Regardless of your predicament, there’s a somewhat legally contentious ride-sharing company that may be able to help you cut your losses.
“This is an event where the city is really going to shut down,” says Taylor Bennett, Uber’s regional communications director in the northeast. “But it’s also an opportunity for Uber to really step in and help.”
The first and most obvious priority is getting people around. Official estimates put 500,000 to 2 million visitors in Philadelphia next weekend, which could double the city’s population overnight.
Despite that UberX, the brand's low-cost private car share service, doesn’t operate on legal grounds in this litigious city of ours — and that Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) is waging active war against its presence — drivers like Ray Reyes are still planning to facilitate both the pilgrims and the city residents.
Reyes, 43, has been an UberX driver for a little over a year, but he’s really into the job. He belongs to something of a “secret group” on Facebook, where fellow Uber drivers “give out pointers” and share “ideas about how to improve productivity.”
Right now, eight days out, Uber still hasn’t formalized its plans for how to tackle the papal visit. Reyes and others are anticipating “hotspots” where there will be riders in need.
“Us drivers have been talking at length about working along the train stations,” Reyes said. “We’re scratching our heads right now, but we’re optimistic that management will give us the guidance we need to make sure both the drivers and the riders are taken care of.”
Plan or no plan, they'll "be there" representing the city along with everyone else. On Friday, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) sent out a note reminding drivers that the official Uber insignia must be displayed on their vehicles during the weekend of the Pope’s visit.
And in the meantime, Uber’s Philadelphia office is encouraging more drivers to hop on board with the ride-sharing app technology.
Serving the underserved
Within the traffic box and security parameters in Center City and West Philadelphia, numerous businesses and offices will be closed for at least two days next week. Low-wage and hourly workers — especially in the foodservice and retail industries — will be losing valuable shifts. For them, the Pope’s visit may prove to be more burden than boon.
“If you’re a shift worker, a part-time worker, your business is going to be closed, or you won’t be able to get in,” said Mustafa Rashed, president and CEO of Bellevue Strategies. “Unfortunately, with the way things are and the lack of the communication, it's going to be minorities who are most adversely affected by the Pope coming.”
Turn on the radio right now and you might hear Uber making a last minute call to get drivers on the platform. It's hardly one of usual get-rich-quick schemes you'll hear on the 107.9 FM. With upwards of a million new faces in town, you can make money just by being a good host.
“On the driver’s side, this is chance for people to get in their cars and earn some money when the pope comes into town,” said Bennett, Uber’s spokesman. “We’ve gotten really quick and efficient with the on-boarding screening process. In a matter of a couple days, you could be driving with Uber and making money over that period where otherwise you’d be sitting at home waiting for everybody to leave.”
One-third of Uber’s drivers in Philly already come from neighborhoods with poverty rates above nine percent. It’s not just employing people from resource-poor communities. It’s picking up riders from these areas that traditional taxis don’t always service.
Other cities have already seen that Uber rideshares are serving low-income areas faster, cheaper, and more reliably than traditional taxi companies. And according to an internal survey, Uber found a similar trend in Philadelphia — one in five trips either starts or ends in an underserved neighborhood.
“They open up the app at home, and their first ride is a neighbor that they can take somewhere around their neighborhood,” said Jon Feldman, general manager of Uber Philly.
For part-time drivers, it’s easy money on the side. On the other hand, it's slightly more complicated if you're looking for steady work beyond the papal weekend.
Reyes, who has moved back and forth as a part-time and full-time driver, says that new drivers should understand that Uber isn't a “get rich” scheme. The San Francisco-based technology company takes a 20 percent commission, while drivers earn 80 percent of their fares. Price cuts in fares caused driver’s earning to drop uncomfortably last year. But even so, Reyes says affordable fares are important to keep people using the service.
“Without the riders, Uber doesn’t exist,” he said. “You can have a good, sustainable lifestyle working full-time, but you earn what you put in.”
Making a living
Ride-sharing is a three-year old business model, and as such, many cities didn’t have legislation to accommodate it until recently.
Right now, by encouraging both riders and drivers to use its platform for the papal visit, Uber is sort of breaking the law. The PPA recently hit UberX with $300,000 in fines for illegally operating a taxi service in the city since last October, and they're showing no signs of ending the fight.
“In Philadelphia, there is no ride-share law, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to get past,” Bennett said. “You’ve got taxi laws, but trying to force taxi laws onto a ride-sharing model doesn’t work. These aren’t commercial drivers, these aren’t full-time folks. These are people like you and I who have cars and are looking to make some money. The insurance model is different. The background screening is different. It’s a different model.”
Recently proposed legislation in Harrisburg hopes to change that. For the time-being, however, Uber says it has its Philly drivers' backs.
Prior to becoming a driver, Reyes served 25 years with distinction in the armed forces. Retiring after such service is a “very emotional” process, he said. The job market was tight, and post-military job placement services were lacking. Uber turned out to be the perfect fit for him.
In October 2014, right after the ride-share program launched in Philly, the PPA impounded Reyes’ car. An undercover PPA agent presented himself as a regular rider, and when Reyes dropped off the rider at his Northeast Philadelphia destination, the PPA had boxed him into the parking lot.
As with most Uber drivers, this was not only Reyes’ source of income. It was his personal vehicle as well.
Uber took the lead. They provided Reyes with credit to visit his VA counsellor in New York, gave him legal advice, and took care of his impound fees.
Any corporation still has kinks in the armor, Reyes says, and Uber is no perfect model. But supporting its drivers when it was contractually bound to, Reyes found his loyalty.
“My mantra — my motto — is never leave a person behind,” Reyes said. “And Uber has never left me behind, and I stand by them one hundred percent.”