Life in the Fast Lane | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Life in the Fast Lane

Officials put the pedal to the metal for ridesharing

A confession: I haven't used either of the city's ride-sharing services. But I'm already impressed by their ability to get everyone else on board.

Take Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's July 10 press conference celebrating Senate Bill 1457, which would establish new rules permitting ride-sharing within city limits. On hand were what Peduto, a vocal ride-sharing supporter, called an "interesting pairing" of "progressive Democrats with free-market Republicans," the latter group including suburban legislators John Maher and Mark Mustio.

Lyft and Uber drivers have been ferrying about passengers without such a law, and despite sanctions by the Public Utility Commission. Usually, Republicans are all about law and order, but it's not like these guys are Occupy Pittsburgh: Lyft and Uber are billion-dollar companies backed by the likes of Goldman Sachs (Uber) and hedge fund Third Point Capital (Lyft). Those are rule-breakers the GOP can get behind!

Nor are they alone. This past weekend alone, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran three ride-sharing stories. They included an editorial-board member praising his own Uber experience, and an op-ed co-written by conservative archfiend Grover Norquist, who argued that ride-sharing could help splinter unions and big-city Democrats. Um.

But in Pittsburgh, at least, no one appears to be worried. As state Sen. Wayne Fontana, the Brookline Democrat who sponsored SB 1457, told me July 10, "I've gotten more emails about this than keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh."

Given all this support, it's worth asking: Why did Uber and Lyft break the law in the first place? Why not use the time-honored democratic process that made this country great: changing the law by hiring lobbyists and buying up politicians with campaign contributions?

When I asked that question of David Barmore, who was on hand to represent Uber at Peduto's press conference, he said that judges elsewhere had ruled that "the law needs to catch up. ... It's an example of technology outpacing regulations."

That's an argument for changing the law or suing over it, not breaking it outright. (In fairness, Lyft is respecting some hallowed traditions: It's hired Harrisburg lobbyist Triad Strategies.) But Mark Price suspects the outlaw approach offers other advantages.

"It's part of a PR plan," says Price, an economist at the labor-backed Keystone Research Center. "It's better than saying, ‘We're the boring company who would like to operate according to the rules.'"

While Price acknowledges that "if cab service in Pittsburgh is loathed, that raises serious questions about the rules governing the PUC," he adds that the agency "has been pilloried unfairly to some extent. The companies were violating the law, and the PUC's job is to bust people who do that." The PUC also must negotiate the concerns of state insurers, who don't want to be on the hook should a driver injure or kill a passenger. Arguably, that's a dispute best resolved before someone ends up in the hospital.

Anyway, the PUC's regulations do have an upside. Lyft and Uber get free publicity every time a politician sends out a press release and local media outlets — desperate for the eyeballs of the young and hip — run with it. And while the PUC's $1,000-a-day fine would put the brakes on a true upstart service, an operation like Uber, which is valued at more than $18 billion, can write the fines off as a marketing expense. If anything, they demonstrate the company's street cred as a purveyor of rebellious Urban Cool.

There's nothing new about that strategy. As Tom Frank wrote in his book The Conquest of Cool, during the heyday of 1960s counterculture, corporate America began marketing campaigns that "encouraged resistance to established power." That laid the foundation for what Frank calls "hip consumerism," a mindset in which a pink mustache can become the perfect disguise for a hedge-fund investor.

Other industries can only envy such a marketing coup. Not long ago Range Resources, the Marcellus Shale drilling heavyweight, put up a YouTube ad that sought to align the interests of gas drillers with those of urban cyclists and magenta-coiffed hair stylists. So far, however, no one has moved to scrap Pittsburgh's ban on gas-drilling within city limits. Next time, maybe Range ought to set up an unlicensed rig in Point State Park, and slap a furry mustache on it.

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