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Tensions were high this past Friday as taxi and Uber Black drivers protested against the ride-sharing service's unlivable wages.

Credit: Lowell Neumann Nickey

On Friday around 12:30 p.m., taxi drivers, black-car Uber drivers and other local residents gathered to protest the stagnant state of licensing in Philadelphia and what they perceive to be exploitative practices carried out by Uber. 

The traditional black-car Uber service is allowed in Philadelphia, but UberX, an additional service provided by Uber, is not. Despite being licensed in 66 out of 67 Pennsylvania counties, UberX is still not allowed in Philadelphia.

What looked on the surface like an active protest against “illegal” Uber and Lyft drivers was, in reality, much more nuanced. Many of those at the event were in fact angry that Uber or Lyft drivers have been forced to drive illegally due to the state government's inaction.

“The issue isn’t drivers against drivers,” Ronald Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, said. Blount and many other drivers in Philadelphia feel that Uber is pitting workers against each other by not following existing regulation and continuing to operate illegally in Philadelphia.

For example, Blount said Uber will entice drivers to work for their premium, licensed Uber Black service, which requires drivers to own a luxury black car, but then undercut these drivers by operating the illegal UberX service. 

By failing to adhere to regulations and working outside of their legislative authority, Blount fears that Uber may leave behind the disabled and marginalized.  He said there have been multiple instances in which disabled customers have been charged double by UberX due to additional equipment requirements.   

“We welcome Uber!” said Matthew Clark, organizer for Taxis for All Philly, a disability advocacy group. “We just want to make sure that we are able to ride. Twenty-first century companies can and should honor 20th-century civil rights laws.”

Clark was referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which in Title III states that “public accommodations and … commercial facilities” can’t discriminate against disabled people.

“Any business that serves the public has to serve all of the public, not just the ones that move like they do,” Clark said. “Of course the medallion system has its problems; no one likes paperwork, but regulation is important. It protects people who would otherwise be left out on the curb, like we are.”

Dawud Carroll, a Philadelphian passing through the City Hall area, saw the nobility behind the fight, but lamented its futile nature. “You’d win against a wall before you could win against technology,” he said. 

Many of the UberX drivers were unwilling or reluctant to speak — given the illegal status of their current work — but one driver, Muhammad Islam, said,  “The [Philadelphia Parking Authority] needs to legalize UberX, or we will continue to drive illegally.”

Uber was able to attract some surprisingly passionate supporters of its own to the event. While passing by the protest, Lawrence Way of North Philadelphia yelled, “Uber always picks me up. Taxis always pass me and ask the nearest white person if they want a ride.” Way said there were countless times that taxi drivers have told him over the phone that they would not come to his area to pick him up because it was too dangerous. 

“Never had that problem with Uber,” he said.

How the PPA is involved adds another layer to the story entirely. 

According to the Philadelphia Daily News, the PPA, a state-run body, colluded with the taxi industry to keep UberX illegal. The PPA said it's merely doing its job by enforcing state law and ensuring a level of safety for riders. The PPA provides inspections and regulations that Uber says it takes care of on its end. According to a statement from the company, each UberX trip in Philadelphia is covered by a minimum of $1 million in primary commercial liability insurance. Uber also claims that it ensures all of its driver’s cars have passed state inspections.

The PPA, like many other governmental regulatory administrations, finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place, protecting consumers or protecting the industry that serve them.

Recently, Mayor Jim Kenny expressed support for UberX in Philadelphia. Blount says his chief goal was to get the mayor and City Council to clarify his statement as support for a legal UberX, which would require significant effort on the state level.  The day after Thursday’s event, Blount’s group had a meeting with representatives from Mayor Kenny’s office and is optimistic that the appropriate rephrasing will be made. 

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