How Uber Beat the Metro
The cannibalization of Washington’s public transportation system by private enterprise is a symbol of the city’s Obama-era transformation.
Disrupting D.C.: the Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City, by Katie J. Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen, Princeton University Press, 224 pages
Uber came to Washington, D.C. in 2011, the same year the city lost its designation as a majority-black district. The city’s population had been changing for about a decade: The Global War on Terror, the Great Recession, and the ascendance of Barack Obama all brought with them a mass of upwardly mobile outsiders determined to remake the city in their own image.
These were strange days. Marion Barry was still alive, but his world was crumbling. Against his wishes, the city had legalized gay marriage. The Old Post Office Pavilion, the desiccated shopping mall that Barry had once touted as Washington’s rival to Times Square, was soon to be sold to Donald Trump and covered over with marble and gilt. In every way, it seemed, the visibly scuzzy D.C. of the mid-century was dying without glory. Whole city blocks were razed in all four quadrants to make way for shining sports stadiums, sleek office complexes, and luxury apartment buildings, the emblems of a no less corrupted successor.
Uber’s role in the transformation was circumstantial, at least at first. The ride sharing app had been around since 2009, and when it arrived in the city two years later, illegally, it was welcomed as the solution to Washington’s transportation woes. It was fast, reliable, and safe. Meanwhile, the Metro was anything but. It had not lived up to its early promise of fulfilling that “desire for beauty” and “hunger for community” that Lyndon B. Johnson during its construction had said it would satisfy. In fact, the Metro had failed entirely. In June 2009, nine people were killed and seventy more injured when two trains collided near a station.
This was not an isolated incident: In the years following, trains continued to crash and derail, and frequently the tracks caught fire too. The buses weren’t much better. And the cabs? Forget about it. Stephen Glass’s exposé in The New Republic may have been factually inaccurate, but the spirit of the thing was true; the taxi scene in the nation’s capital was as dangerous, as backward, and as racist as he portrayed it.
Oddly, it was the taxi scene that gave Uber its first lift. In early 2012, the city’s taxicab commissioner, Ron Linton, ordered an Uber from his office to the Mayflower, where he had ordered taxi enforcement officers to wait. As soon as the car pulled up to the hotel, the officers encircled it, slapped several fines on the driver, and impounded his vehicle. “We did it,” Linton said later that day, “to send a message to drivers who are signing up with Uber that we are going to enforce our laws.” But Linton’s sting had the opposite effect. Instead of showing the city’s strength, it unveiled its pervasive weakness. And, as Katie J. Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen argue in Disrupting D.C., it was one of the events which prompted Uber to compose a “playbook” first to conquer Washington, D.C., and then pretty much every other American city.
Linton had intended to prove that a city government, no matter how hapless, has the power to regulate the industries within its bounds. He didn’t count on the fact that Uber isn’t constrained by those bounds. The company, like so many others from Silicon Valley, is primarily in the data collection business, and, when threatened, it uses that data as a weapon. This is exactly what happened in Washington’s case. City council took up the Uber question in summer 2012, and, after some debate, it settled on an arrangement in which Uber would submit to a ban on surge pricing, a raft of disability requirements, and the possibility of mandatory price minimums.
The specter of price minimums rankled Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick. So he played hardball with the city. Not long after a hearing on the proposed regulations, Kalanick used Uber’s database to send a blast of emails and texts to anyone who had ever used the app in Washington, D.C. Kalanick demanded that his customers harangue city council until it removed the price minimums. The pitch worked. Within 24 hours, city council received more than 50,000 emails and nearly as many angry tweets threatening essentially the same thing: If you punish Uber, we will punish you.
That was enough to change the council’s mind. Uber got everything it wanted very quickly. By unanimous consent, the price minimums were scrapped and a new business category was created for “digital dispatch” services, basically free from any city oversight. As the council cowered, Kalanick congratulated it on its moderation, declaring that D.C. “will serve as an innovative model for city transportation legislation across the country.”
His prediction came to pass, as over the next decade many other American cities adopted Washington’s attitude toward Uber. Supporters of Uber (and of deregulation generally) declared the company’s success a win for “democracy.” There’s some truth in this description: Uber did after all appeal to popular opinion to make cities rewrite their rules. But what drove that appeal was a fundamental cynicism.
Recounting that cynicism is Disrupting D.C.’s primary interest. “Uber’s success in D.C. and elsewhere hinges on exploiting a political and infrastructural vacuum, and, in so doing, redefining what people expect from cities and the urban public realm,” write Wells, Attoh, and Cullen. The authors, through a series of interviews with about forty Uber drivers—as well as city officials and Uber’s lobbyists—conducted over the course of about five years, aim to show that the company has succeeded largely because there was no other choice. Uber identified a real problem and offered a solution that, while not really an improvement, at least offered a duller pain than the alternative. “Few with whom we spoke held up Uber as a real solution to D.C. transportation, racial, economic, or employment challenges,” the authors write, noting that nearly everyone interviewed stands by the company all the same, because, after all, who wants to ride the Metro?
The stories of the drivers are pathetic in the classical sense of the word. It’s well known by now that gig economy jobs can’t provide a real living, and yet the most desperate have no choice but to be crushed by the work. Many of the drivers to whom the authors spoke are people at the end of their ropes, fully aware that they are being exploited. Most drive Uber as a second or even third job. They know that to the company they are just numbers. One man speculated that his driving is no more than a data set that will soon be repurposed for self-driving cabs—and he’ll be out of a job. Another woman said that since she started driving, she’s found that she needs to be ruthless just to get by. She finds herself rooting for Metro accidents: “I like it when Metro doesn’t work. That’s how I make my money.”
Uber’s proselytes tend to gloss over the negative aspects of employment in its ranks—namely, the poor pay and abject working conditions—in favor of a narrative emphasizing some crude notion of civic harmony. “What’s unique about this tech company is that it’s bringing people together,” one Uber lobbyist told the authors. “It’s very cool to see the old D.C. and the new D.C. bridging [sic].” And the company itself is never afraid to play the race card, no matter how debased the situation. When police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd in 2020, Uber waived all delivery fees for people who ordered food from black-owned restaurants. That same summer, the company dared people who “tolerate racism” to delete the app from their phones. The subtext here is of course that buying into Uber is an act of racial reconciliation, that simply by calling a car the consumer applies a salve to America’s greatest unhealed wound.
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That attitude is nothing special; it’s considered best practice in corporate America. What makes the case of Uber exceptional is that from a very early stage, city officials in Washington realized that by ceding control over transportation in the city to Uber, the city could excuse itself from fixing its own public transportation. The malfunctioning Metro and the ailing cab system—both of which disproportionately affected the city’s poor black population—were no longer its problems. Uber would handle it.
That decision came at a price though. Since it won the regulation battle, Uber has become an aggressive force in transportation matters to the point that, the authors argue, it would be more rightly said that the city is a partner to Uber’s interests rather than the other way around. One high-ranking city employee told the authors that he has to be very discreet when discussing public transportation with other city employees, for fear that Uber might get wind of his deliberations. He has taken to only discussing such matters on the phone because, as all investigative reporters know, Uber “can’t FOIA a phone call.”
Ultimately, city officials comfort themselves by blaming their forebears. A former staffer in the mayor’s office told the authors that no one is really at fault for the mess they’re in. No one except Marion Barry. Washington is “a young city,” he explained. “To a large extent it’s really only been a functional city for twenty years.” I suppose that statement is true, after a fashion. But even a short drive around the city leaves me wondering if “functionality” is all that better from the days of the Mayor-for-Life.