The most telling moment in New York City’s recent Uber war was when Mayor de Blasio spoke from the Vatican. There to talk about climate change, he heard that City Comptroller Scott Stringer wanted to ease the strain on Uber. He responded on the spot, thundering: “The people of our cities don’t like the notion of those who are particularly wealthy and powerful dictating the terms to government elected by the people.” It was a strange response. He never mentioned his official concerns over Uber. Nor had Uber ever sought to dictate to New York City or any city. It had, in fact, long since bowed to the city’s instance that it alter its business model, force its drivers to procure chauffeurs licenses, register with the Taxi & Limousine Commission, and work its cars out of bases instead of the driver’s home, as it does elsewhere. Yet still, command and control were in the front of Mayor de Blasio’s mind. The whole display spoke to the tone of his entire progressive agenda.
His impulse certainly suggests that not even he believed his stated reasons for opposing Uber’s expansion. He had publically worried that Uber would hurt yellow cab drivers. Yet, the mayor has shown little concern about the strains taxi medallion owners impose on these poor people. Most of them have to lease their cars from medallion owners, pay their own gas, and pay a 5 percent free on credit card transactions. They are, some calculate, $100 in the hole before they begin their work day, have to work long hours before they generate income for themselves, and command an hourly pay of only about $20.00. Nor can they claim employee benefits. The National Taxi Alliance will readily remind people that most drivers, as independent operators, enjoy none of the protections of the country’s labor laws and their union has no standing with the National Labor Relations Board to represent workers. It is hard to see how Uber could make matters worse for them.
His public concerns about congestion and air quality were equally unconvincing. He had blamed Uber for tie ups on city streets that had reduced average driving speeds from 9.4 miles an hour in 2010, before Uber arrived, to 8.0 more recently. But surely the mayor’s own efforts to cut speed limits from 30 to 25 miles per hour has contributed, as has his decision to allocate numerous bike lanes and pedestrian walk ways and so force cars and trucks onto less road space. The population has also grown since Uber entered the city in 2011 and an economic recovery has proceeded. Back in 2009 and 2010, the pre-Uber base used by the mayor to make his comparisons, the whole country, including New York City, was still reeling from the 2008-09 financial crisis and recession. The recovery, though slow, has inevitably put more cars and trucks on the streets. Even if Uber were banned altogether, it would be reasonable to expect average speeds to go on declining for as long as the economic recovery continues. Meanwhile, the data released by Uber show its busiest times are between 9:00 pm and midnight, hardly times of the greatest congestion.
Other suggestions about the mayor’s motivations are plausible but hard to credit unreservedly. Uber general manager for New York City, Josh Mohrer, argued that the mayor simply wants to be the man who “stopped Uber.” That is a bit harsh, though there is more than a hint of de Blasio ego in Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s complaint that the mayor had cavalierly stepped on her prerogatives regarding Uber. Nor is there a way to verify accusations by Uber’s chief advisor, David Plouffe, that de Blasio is only trying to pay back the taxi medallion owners for their campaign contributions, though the $500,000 they gave the mayor’s campaign and the $150,000 they gave council members are compelling sums.
When the mayor spoke from the Vatican, however, he offered a much clearer explanation of what is going on with Uber. These remarks screamed the mayor’s abiding obsession with power and control, an obsession that runs through his entire progressive agenda. It appeared earlier in his tenure during the charter school fight. In that matter, he may have wanted to pay off his supporters in the teachers unions, as some suggested, but it was also apparent how hotly he resented the ability of charger schools to avoid the close control the city otherwise imposed. So, too, with this latest exchange, Uber’s offence was not, as de Blasio claimed, a desire to dictate to the city but rather a desire to avoid the kind of dictates the city imposes on taxies, dictates that would deny Uber freedom to serve its market flexibly, both with the number of rides available and the cost of each ride. It seems that in the mayor’s mind, you dictate to him when you resist any of his dictates. As with charter schools, what New Yorkers want is at most of secondary importance.