Uber Goes Right to Users' Phones When It Wants Lawmakers to Jump

  • App sends political messages and appeals directly to its users
  • It creates a lobbyist-in-your-pocket for the sharing economy

The Uber app runs on an iPhone during an Uber ride in Washington on April 8, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Uber customers in Austin, Texas, who ordered cars last month got a political prod, right on their phones: the option of a $50 horse-and-buggy ride.

The offer was meant to lampoon a plan to fingerprint drivers, which Uber Technologies Inc. calls 19th-century regulation for 21st-century technology. It exemplified the company’s strategy of using the very mobile phones that enable its car-booking application as mobilization tools against regulations like those that cover the taxi industry. Uber has deployed the tactic to encourage voting in San Francisco, to fight caps on its fleet in New York and in a successful attempt to block tougher insurance and background checks in Palm Beach County, Florida.

“We certainly had pressure from Uber users,” said Melissa McKinlay, a Palm Beach County commissioner whose office was flooded with e-mails and calls -- more than she’s ever received on any issue -- asking her to oppose the rules. “Uber was brilliant in motivating and activating their users. It was really a grassroots effort.”

Valued at $50 billion and operating in more than 300 cities, Uber is using its app for a new kind of political engagement. Unlike traditional campaigns that spend millions on television advertisements and direct mailers that voters can easily ignore, Uber’s messages are free and allow it to target users in specific cities with messages that pop up on their phones.

Better Way

Gabriel Lenz, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, was in Hawaii this year when he got an alert on his Uber app to sign a petition about a measure in that state.

“The message actually came up in the app, right when I was trying to use Uber,” Lenz said. “That’s a much better way of reaching people than anything that campaigns would ever have. If a campaign sends you a postcard telling you to turn out to vote, on average that will have a zero effect on your behavior.”

The company is facing limits on its services as policy makers struggle to decide how to oversee the mobile-phone based ride service that has expanded rapidly and upended regulated taxi systems all over the world. Taxi drivers and their employers say ride-sharing services get to avoid regulations, such as insurance requirements, that bind established competitors.

When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio this year offered a plan to cap Uber’s fleet, the company released a “de Blasio” app view mocking already-long wait times for cars. Riders who clicked could tweet the mayor their opinions on the policy, part of a campaign that generated 49,239 e-mails to officials and 18,623 tweets opposing the plan. The mayor dropped the proposal in July.

“It’s easy for many public officials to look at a big company and not listen to the message that’s being developed by the company,” said Justin Kintz, a company spokesman. “When they hear that message from tens of thousands of people in their community, that’s when they really start to pay attention.”

Consumer Collective

Uber in October blasted e-mails to users in Seattle -- where the city council is considering allowing drivers to unionize -- urging riders to register to vote and support pro-Uber candidates in municipal elections. More than 5,000 people complied.

“Because of the immediacy and the flexibility of the app, it does give them a certain advantage,” said Arun Sundararajan, professor at New York University’s business school who studies the sharing economy. “For their size, they have immense amounts of regulatory battles. Uber seems to be a strong believer in using consumer collective action as one of the forces in their political battles.”

Portland resident Sean Baioni, an Uber user who is legally blind and can’t drive, said he testified before a working group at the city council earlier this year after getting an e-mail alert from Uber about lawmakers holding a meeting to establish a framework to allow the company to operate there. Lawmakers in April approved a 120-pilot program to permit its use.

“People love Uber,” said Baioni, 43, a regional sales manager. “When you’ve done such a great job providing a service that’s in high demand, it’s smart of them to leverage those same people.”

In San Jose, California’s third-largest city, lawmakers in November backed away from a proposal extending fingerprinting for taxi drivers to Uber drivers at its Silicon Valley airport and instead instituted a random curbside check after the company urged local riders to e-mail the city council ahead of a vote on the proposal.

“It’s a compromise that I’m far from happy with,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a telephone interview. “It’s hardly surprising that an industry that relies on a mobile app to engage customers would use that same mobile app for advocacy.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE