NYC Enlists Tech Types to Help Fix Its Uber Problem
Uber and the City of New York have called a ceasefire in the battle they waged against each other earlier this summer over the city’s plans to cap the expansion of the ride-hailing industry. Just months after all the name-calling and mudslinging came to a standstill, the two super powers are working on plans to co-exist peacefully.
Now, New York City is enlisting some big-league help to figure out what that plan will be. This week, the city held the first meeting of its newly formed Technology Advisory Group, a panel convened to consider the question of what to do about Uber. The group’s two dozen members include academics from New York University and Columbia, venture capitalists like Fred Wilson, and representatives from tech companies, Uber itself among them.
The goal is to reorient the city’s regulatory framework around the transportation industry as it exists today, rather than the way things used to be.
“The first meeting was about telling everyone that the rules we have are from another time,” says Jessie Singleton, New York’s chief digital officer, who is organizing the group. “We’ve done a pretty good job of adapting that framework to support innovation, but now we’re resetting the table.”
In some ways, Singleton says, this moment in time is similar to the early 1980s, when the rise of the two-way radio began allowing taxi companies to dispatch vehicles to specific locations. That technology led to the creation of the black car market in New York, which unlike yellow cabs, must be dispatched in advance, instead of hailed on the street.
“We have these historic examples of when technology has caused the city to acknowledge the importance of creating either a new framework or adapting an old one,” Singleton says.
Getting these new frameworks right in New York City is particularly important, says NYU Stern School of Business professor Arun Sundarajan, who is a member of the advisory board. “The services in question are more fundamental to our day-to-day life than in most other cities,” he says. “A number of cities around the world will look to New York as the template, as the model of how you deal with this kind of digital disruption in a forward-looking way.”
Throughout the year, the advisory group members will assess issues like safety, labor, managing congestion, accessibility, and geographic coverage of for-hire vehicles. They’ll also provide the city with the data and insight they need to complete an ongoing study of the for-hire vehicle market. That study was a major point of contention between Uber and the city this summer, as Mayor de Blasio proposed capping Uber and other for-hire vehicles until a study of their impact on the city was completed.
As part of the agreement to drop the cap proposal, the city said it would allow these companies to continue to operate throughout the duration of the study. In return, Uber would work with the city to provide data on its operations in New York. Now, the city is asking the rest of its advisory group to share even more data and research on the industry.
“It’s a hotly followed topic in academic institutions, and a lot of tech transportation companies are built on data-driven platforms,” Singleton says. “Many of the questions around congestion and consumer choice and equitable growth and safety of drivers and passengers are questions they might have key insights and assets to help answer.”
A New Structure
It’s important to note, however, that the advisory group won’t be responsible for coming up with a final plan for for-hire vehicles in the city. Rather, they’ll help inform the study upon which the city will base its long-term plans. Singleton says it’s too early to share exactly which regulations are likely to change. But Sundarajan, for one, says he found the first meeting promising.
“I’ve seen discussions like this before in other contexts, and the sense I got was that there was a genuine openness to considering new solutions and to inviting new data sources and ideas for analysis,” he says. “It wasn’t, ‘These are the regulations, and how do we tweak them?’ It was more, “What’s a new structure? How can we solve our problems and lead the rest of the world forward?’”
In some ways, this approach reflects just how powerful Uber is. This summer the city found itself on the wrong end of Uber’s ire, and was easily cast as a backward-looking bureaucracy. Now, the city seems to have figured out that the only way to control a juggernaut like Uber is to work with, instead of against, it.
“The stakes are higher in New York. I see this is part of a process of careful thinking,” Sundarajan says. “I’m optimistic and keeping my fingers crossed this openness and desire to come up with the right solution, not just any solution, will persist.”
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