Uber, which is never far from a fight, has a big one on its hands this week.
On Thursday, New York's city council will vote on a rule that could prevent the ride-hailing service from expanding as quickly as it wants in the city, its biggest U.S. market. The change would limit the number of vehicles Uber is allowed to add to its platform, while city officials conduct a year-long study of traffic congestion in the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio is supporting the caps on new Uber vehicles, and has refused Uber's challenge to a public, livestreamed debate over the issue.
City Hall is standing by its position that Uber is clogging the streets with cars for hire. Meanwhile, Uber has mobilized its supporters to fight the change with a petition and a tweak to its app that placed a "de Blasio" button on every city user's screen, illustrating the long wait times the company says would result if the bill is passed.
On Monday, I spoke to Josh Mohrer, Uber's general manager in New York, about the upcoming vote, the company's hardball tactics, and what he fears could happen if Uber loses this fight.
When de Blasio came into office, there was some fear that he might do something like this. Is the way he’s opposing Uber now a surprise to you?
I mean, the actual proposal wasn’t a surprise because, four months ago, the taxi industry proposed it.
You know, look, we don’t always have the best reputation, but we are doing a lot of good throughout the city, creating a lot of economic opportunities and a lot of rides.
I just imagined that whatever people don’t like about Uber, they would recognize the benefits of the service.
Someone in City Hall apparently called this a "boutique side issue" that no one actually cares about. What’s your response?
For the most powerful mayor in the world, it is kind of a small issue. And the only reason it’s an issue for him right now is that he’s carrying water for the taxi industry.
We’re for a congestion study. We think that’s great. But it seems to me more and more that City Hall has a desired outcome, and they’re now just sort of solving for it.
Do you think you’ll win the vote on Thursday?
I don’t know.
But if you had to bet…
Well look, the reason we asked the mayor for a public debate is that I don’t think this is on the level, and I want to have as much transparency as possible. I think something stinks. And I don’t know how the vote’s going to go.
If it's not limiting new Ubers on the road, what should New York be doing about congestion?
Well, first of all, the mayor’s never cared about congestion before. It’s kind of a new thing for him. But if I were mayor and congestion was my top priority, I would think about: why are 2.7 million people coming into the city every day in their own car? What is behind that? And what are the real reasons for congestion? We’re all ordering on Amazon, and UPS and FedEx trucks are double-parked during the day? I love Amazon, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have it. But maybe it’s impacting congestion. Or bike lanes, which I love! But that’s one less lane of traffic.
If you zoom out a little bit, if you look before the recession, things are about what they are today. Congestion maps with economic growth. The city is doing well, and a lot of people want to be here. These are good things.
I saw [Uber head of expansion] Austin Geidt’s tweet about, you know, this bill would destroy Uber in New York City. Are the stakes really that existential?
Basically, this is what happens: 25,000 people take their first Uber ride in New York City every week. That’s a lot of people. To keep up with the demand, we’re adding several hundred new drivers a week. Imagine a situation in which everyone wants an Uber and there aren’t enough Ubers. That sometimes happens when it rains. But that would potentially become the everyday.
So, everyday surge pricing?
We’d have to think about the right solution there.
The reality is, people like Uber because it’s reliable in a way that yellow cabs aren’t. If you supply-constrain Uber, it too will eventually become unreliable. Vehicles will focus on the high end in midtown Manhattan, rather than the outer boroughs.
Some of the campaign stuff leading up to this vote has had racial undertones — support Uber because it allows people of color to get reliable transportation, things like that. I’ve never seen you guys lean so heavily on that kind of rhetoric before.
You know, I’m a white guy, I don’t have first-hand experience. But I’ve heard a lot of stories. I have an African-American friend who says, "The most humiliating moments in my life can be when I’m not in a suit and I’m trying to get a taxi in the city. But with Uber, that’s never a problem."
It’s not that taxi drivers are bad guys. I’m not saying that. It’s the way the system is set up, certain behaviors are encouraged. And I’m just really proud that Uber has solved this problem.
What if, as Matt Buchanan suggests, City Hall just imposed a cap on new vehicles in Manhattan, and allowed unlimited growth in the boroughs, where taxis aren't as plentiful?
That’s an example of a creative solution I would love to have with City Hall, but they are unwilling to have that conversation.
City council people are tweeting that Uber drivers are making $3 an hour. They’re just reading the talking points of the taxi industry. I thought this was about congestion! I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. It’s unbelievable.
Uber has hired former taxi commission workers and people who were involved in the Bloomberg administration. Are those people surprised by what's happening now?
We’re obviously talking to them about it. I mean, Stu [Loeser, a former Bloomberg aide] is working on this with us.
What does the ground game look like for something like this?
My goal right now is to win the vote. I met with councilman Lander this morning — we’re just trying to make the case with logic.
Do you see this as a threat to Uber as a whole? Or is it just one more localized fight?
My focus is the tri-state area, so I’m not really thinking about what the implications are for Uber as a whole. Much of the country’s seen the value of Uber for what it is. Some of our tactics can be harsh, but it’s because this is the kind of opposition we face all over the world, and that’s the only way you can do it.
I’m very disappointed in what’s going on. I think it’s just politics. I don’t think it’s about congestion or anything. I mean, the taxi industry calling us out for labor issues — are you kidding me?
In retrospect, do you wish you had used fewer harsh tactics in New York?
Well, you know, the last episode here was the city saying the TLC had to approve every single software update, and that a driver couldn’t cancel a trip. Those were pretty bad, and we were very worried about that, so we went pretty hard on that.
What we did there was we outed a lot of our supporters. And City Hall went around calling all those people saying, “You’d better not weigh in on this.” I’m not the politics guy here, but I’ve had a couple of phone calls — old friends are like, “Listen, City Hall told me not to get involved in this.” They’re telling lobbyists that they should fire Uber if they want to get any work done with them. I mean, it’s crazy.
What feedback have you gotten on the de Blasio tab in the app?
I think it was great. It wasn’t my idea. I actually pooh-poohed it — I didn’t think it was that clever originally. A junior comms person who’s here to help out said, “What if we had a de Blasio view?” I was like, “I don’t get it,” because I’m kind of the old guy. And it ended up being brilliant.
And what will you do if you lose the fight, and the cap rule passes?
I don’t know. I’m not thinking past Thursday. I’ll be pretty sad, though.
This interview has been condensed and edited.