Peduto on Uber’s relationship with Pittsburgh: ‘I can only guess that they are trying to make 2017 better than 2016’

The mayor spoke to The Incline about his disappointment in the company’s CEO following #DeleteUber.

The Incline
MJ Slaby

Updated, 5:54 p.m. Feb. 13

Update, 3:56 p.m. Feb. 6: Following the publication of this article, Uber reached out to respond to Peduto’s comments.

Mayor Bill Peduto said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to leave President Donald Trump’s economic advisory council was both “necessary” and “a bold move.”

But in a one-on-one interview with The Incline on Friday, Peduto said he’s been disappointed by Uber multiple times in 2016 and shares many of the same concerns about the company as organizers planning a Saturday protest in Pittsburgh.

“Some of their complaints are the ones I’ve had directly with the upper management of the company,” Peduto said.

That included Uber’s actions last weekend during protests about anti-immigration orders coming from the White House.

“There has been a history with Uber that does not fit within their business model, which is based strictly on cities,” Peduto said.

Last weekend, protesters took to airports across the country to stand against Trump’s executive order that suspended the refugee program for 120 days, indefinitely stopped Syrian refugees from resettling in the U.S. and prevented people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country for 90 days.

During those protests, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance asked drivers to avoid John F. Kennedy International Airport for an hour Saturday, as a sign of support for immigrants. Less than an hour after the taxi workers stoppage, Uber tweeted about turning off surge pricing — aka lowering their fares — to the same airport. 

Critics saw that tweet and Kalanick’s decision to be on Trump’s advisory group as a lack of support for those affected by the executive order and launched the #DeleteUber campaign. The New York Times reported that more than 200,000 people deleted their Uber app. 

Peduto attended the Sunday protest at the Pittsburgh International Airport and tweeted that he was disappointed in Uber — and told Kalanick so.

The mayor texted Kalanick, and on Monday, he told The Incline:

I was very disappointed by Uber’s conduct this weekend and told their CEO so. Uber came here because of the great talent Pittsburgh produces and the high-tech people we have attracted from around the world. We’ve held up our end the bargain, but we haven’t seen much from Uber. This is a two-way street not a one-way. I need to see more interest from them in our communities, both locally and internationally.

The mayor, who is usually an advocate for ride-sharing and self-driving cars, told The Incline that he has a straightforward approach to improve the city’s partnership.

“Like any relationship, you have to first be honest, and then allow them to find a way to make it better,” he said. “I anticipate that 2017 will be better than 2016.”

A ‘back and forth relationship’

Peduto said last weekend marked the latest round of disappointment in Uber.

Whether the tweet about pricing was meant “to break up the strike or not, it was perceived that way,” Peduto said Friday.

“It was simply resonating a message that goes against their own economic well-being,” he said.

An Uber spokesman told The Incline on Monday that the company was “mortified that people believe we turned off surge around JFK to in any way affect the strikes.” The spokesman also stressed that Kalanick’s spot on Trump’s council wasn’t an endorsement of the president’s actions.

Kalanick sent emails to employees on Saturday and drivers on Sunday, in which he stressed support for immigrants and ways the company would support those affected by the ban.

Peduto said Uber is a company that relies on cities — its riders live in cities, its tech workers live in cities, and its drivers live in cities and are immigrants.

And cities don’t support Trump’s orders, Peduto said.

If Uber wants cities to help them succeed, the company has to help cities, not only financially, but by being committed to things that cities like Pittsburgh believe in, Peduto said. He called the city’s relationship with Uber “back and forth” and said there have been previous disappointments.

When Pittsburgh wanted to join a bill that would allow Philadelphia to collect a percentage of Uber’s revenues, Peduto said Uber’s lobbyists objected.

In November, Pittsburgh wanted to promote the self-driving car pilot during the National League of Cities Conference, but Uber didn’t cooperate, Peduto said. And when the pilot launched last year, the rides were supposed to be free, but Uber had already started action to change that, something Peduto said Pittsburgh didn’t agree with. 

Peduto’s office had reached out to Uber to partner on the Smart Cities Challenge — including $15 million more from Uber to help the city “build out autonomous vehicles right-of-ways to help connect different parts of the city” — an offer that the mayor said the company rejected. The mayor said that failed deal is likely the reason the city lost the challenge.

Peduto said he hasn’t met with Kalanick in person since the challenge and has mostly corresponded with the Uber CEO through text.

But the city’s relationship with Uber has produced good results, the mayor added, such as Uber working with the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania to hire vets to be “safety drivers” in the self-driving cars.

Peduto said the company has indicated it will invest $1 billion into the local economy over the next several years, without asking for government subsidies.

The company also employs more than 700 employees at its multiple Advanced Technology Center locations, and they have another 100 job openings. By the end of 2017, there will likely be more than 1,000 Uber employees in Pittsburgh, Peduto said.

The last time a company came in to employ more than 1,000 people without government subsidies was “in the days of Andrew Carnegie,” the mayor said.

Protest plans

Early this week, several local groups organized “Protest Uber Pittsburgh” for noon Saturday at Denny Park in the Strip District, near Uber’s offices. After Kalanick stepped down from the advisory group, the event changed slightly to be a “celebration” that he was no longer on Trump’s council, but to say that “Uber still has a long way to go.”

Protest organizers said in a news release Thursday:

We demand that they (Uber) repudiate all of Trump’s immoral and hateful policies, support campaigns to oppose anti-sanctuary bills in Harrisburg, and stop restricting workers’ rights to organize. Pittsburghers will also call on Mayor Peduto to reject Uber as a partner to this city, and to evaluate other on-demand transportation options that would allow for a more accountable and publicly-controlled expansion of our transit system.

Organizers said they know Uber has publicly opposed the executive order and has taken steps to help their workforce, but “we view this only as a reaction to bad press due to massive public outcry,” according to the release. 

Peduto agreed that Uber’s offer to aid drivers and employees impacted by the ban was reactionary. “I don’t think anyone could argue it wasn’t damage control,” he said.

Molly Nichols, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit and one of the protest organizers, said Friday that she appreciates Peduto’s recent public concerns about Uber.

She said she hopes that Peduto also takes ownership over “missteps” in the partnership with Uber and that Pittsburghers for Public Transit can work with the mayor going forward.

While the ultimate goal would be for on-demand transportation to be public, Nichols said there are things Uber can do to improve such as allowing unions, more transparency and helping workers who will be displaced as self-driving cars advance.

Greater impact

Kalanick announced Thursday that he was leaving Trump’s business advisory group, after nearly a week of scrutiny. That memo from Kalanick to Uber employees came just a day before the council’s first meeting on FridayBusiness Insider reported that the White House didn’t look kindly on Kalanick’s decision.

Kalanick had previously said the goal was to have a seat at the table, not to endorse the administration. But Peduto countered by saying that whether someone is on an advisory panel or not, it seems that Trump is taking limited advice, most of it from inside the White House.

The mayor said he’s not worried about the possible impact of Kalanick’s decision on Uber’s relationship with the White House or on Pittsburgh’s relationship with the Trump administration.

He said he’s more concerned with the Trump administration’s relationship with American cities, because cities are the “economic engine” of this country, and Trump’s policies counter the economic growth.

Ride-sharing isn’t going away and will likely grow in the next 10 years, Peduto said, adding that Pittsburgh currently has three testers of self-driving cars: Uber, Delphi and Carnegie Mellon University.

Peduto told CityLab earlier this week that if Uber left Pittsburgh, “there are autonomous vehicle companies that would line up” for a partnership.

Peduto said he’s also had conversations with Ford and preliminary talks with Google. The idea would be to have multiple companies doing research, development and manufacturing here, he said. “That’s always been the goal.”

The mayor said he and others met with Uber Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy David Plouffe, who was previously President Barack Obama’s senior advisor, during the DNC to urge Uber to look at economics in a different way.

Peduto suggested that Uber could offer health and auto insurance, or rental car discounts so drivers don’t miss out on income when their cars break down. The company could allow for unions and make drivers who work 40 hours a week into staff, so they have vacations and benefits.

These are “very simple ways to become more people-centric that could change lives, and that’s not happening,” Peduto said.

“They have the potential to change the economic model in this country,” he said.

‘2017 will be better than 2016’

Peduto told The Incline that he’s working on a list of specific ways that Uber can create a business model that not only helps them succeed, but helps cities like Pittsburgh succeed.

One example would be for Uber to partner with the city in its resiliency plan, he said adding he doesn’t know how that partnership would work yet.

Peduto is also hopeful that more Uber data will be public in 2017.

City Controller Michael Lamb raised concerns this week about about Uber data collection and ownership in an email to Peduto, according to a news release from Lamb’s office. Nichols also said she’d like to see more data and transparency from Uber.

The ride-sharing company announced last month that it would launch Uber Movement, a collection of anonymous GPS data from Uber trips everywhere the company operates aimed at helping urban planners and local leaders with infrastructure and transportation planning. Alex Pazuchanics, policy coordinator for the city, told The Incline that the city plans to look at and use the data.

Peduto said positive discussions with Uber about data go back to September. He said he’s hopeful that Pittsburgh will get more data than what’s in Uber Movement, including self-driving car sensor information, and plans for that data to go to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center so it’s public to everyone, not just the city.

Uber kicked off 2017 with $30,000 in donations to causes in Pittsburgh.

The company gave $10,000 worth of rides to the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh (an idea spearheaded by Councilman Dan Gilman). And amid national criticism this week, the company donated $20,000 worth of rides to those going to and from water distribution centers during a flush and boil water advisory in Pittsburgh. Per Uber, half of those ride funds were for underserved communities, as identified by city officials. Peduto said he didn’t know who used the ride offer and that the city didn’t ask for the rides during the water advisory.

“I can only guess that they are trying to make 2017 better than 2016,” he said. “…to give them credit, they are trying.”

“But a partnership requires more than that, especially one where there’s a risk taken [with] a company, which many would say has not earned a good name with other cities. That partnership has to work to prove that wrong,” Peduto said.

Feb. 13: An earlier version misidentified the year by which Peduto expects there to be more than 1,000 Uber employees in Pittsburgh.