Uber is a political machine

Uber — one of the most valuable private tech companies —  is in a public battle with the world’s most powerful mayor.

The richly valued ride-hailing company is fighting a proposed vehicle cap that would limit the number of new cars it could put on the road every year in New York City.

NYC mayor Bill de Blasio says the vehicle cap will allow the city to conduct a study about congestion, traffic, and pollution.

Uber and its allies are quick to point out that the mayor may have other motives for kneecapping the company’s growth —  De Blasio’s mayoral campaign received more than $US250,000 from the taxi industry, which opposes Uber.

To fight the proposed legislation, Uber is pulling out all the stops. The company — which has a history of being far from conflict-averse — has aggressively marketed itself as a service for minorities and outer-borough residents (two groups taxis are notoriously bad at serving) and as a means for New Yorkers to find gainful employment. There have been TV ads and pressers. On Tuesday, Uber hosted a “jobs event” for prospective and current drivers, to showcase how many NYC residents’ jobs stand to be cut if the vehicle cut goes into effect.

If this sounds like a political campaign, that’s because it is. If Uber wants to sustain growth in New York City — one of its biggest markets, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue annually for the company — it has no choice but to fight the taxi lobby and the mayor’s office, which mistakenly thinks Uber’s proponents and users are limited to a “small set of excited tech people.” 

Rarely does a tech company get into politics, especially at this level. Uber is the exception because it has to: it’s a transportation service with a technology layer and real-life operational implications. Uber is a simple enough concept — it brings people from point A to point B at the tap of a button — but it affects a host of issues more wide-reaching than transit, including regulation, employment and labour issues, city infrastructure, and yes, politics.

Uber can’t reimagine public infrastructure and affect regulatory change without playing politics. It didn’t become a $US50 billion company without putting up a fight. New York City is far from being the only market Uber has targeted politically, but it may be the best case study of Uber as an efficient political entity with a well-oiled PR team.

As you’ll recall, Uber hired former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe last year. Plouffe works on Uber’s policy and strategy division, and has been responsible for making sure Uber clears every regulatory hurdle in its path so it can operate in cities around the world.

David PlouffeAP/ Ross D. FranklinUber’s David Plouffe.

Under Plouffe, Uber has made some strategic hires: in Illinois, for example, Uber hired the former governor’s chief of staff. In Connecticut, Uber worked with a former House speaker’s firm.

And in May, Uber hired longtime Googler and 
SVP of communications and policy Rachel Whetstone to replace Plouffe, who now serves as the company’s chief advisor.

Even at a national level, politicians can’t keep Uber’s name out of their mouths. Uber has somehow already become the hot-button tech company of the 2016 election: Hillary Clinton weighed in with concerns about the 1099 economy and worker misclassification, which some saw as a dig at Uber. Jeb Bush made a show of taking an Uber while visiting San Francisco earlier this month.

Last month, Bloomberg wrote an in-depth look on how Uber took over Portland. Plouffe was instrumental in working to legalise Uber’s operations in the city. Swarming in with its team of 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms (which doesn’t even count the company’s municipal lobbyists), Uber wore down city authorities with data and its newfound agreeable, open-to-compromise attitude.

In New York, Uber has run TV ads, bought banner ads on websites, sent out direct mailers to constituents of City Council members who are proponents of the proposed legislation, and even reportedly tried to persuade Reverend Al Sharpton to oppose the for-hire vehicle cap. 

On Tuesday, the NYC comptroller came out swinging against the mayor’s vehicle cap proposal. “It makes no sense to arbitrarily cap Uber and other for-hire vehicle companies before we study the impact of congestion on the streets of New York,” Scott Stringer said. 

The company also offered free UberPool rides to its New York City customers to attend a pro-Uber protest at New York’s City Hall last month, and introduced a “de Blasio” feature in its app to let users see just how long they’d have to wait for a ride with a vehicle cap.

The proposed vehicle cap Uber is fighting could be voted upon as soon as this week

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