Pittsburgh sours on Uber, Airbnb’s Super Bowl politics, and the price of benefits for gig workers


One-way limited-access highway.

The honeymoon is over for Uber in Pittsburgh. After bending over backward to accommodate Uber’s self-driving ambitions in 2016, city officials have tired of being taken for granted. “We’ve held up our end of the bargain,” Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto said last week, “but we haven’t seen much from Uber. This is a two-way street, not a one-way. I need to see more interest from them in our communities, both locally and internationally.” City controller Michael Lamb had even sharper words for the ride-hailing company. “Unfortunately, to this point, the relationship with Uber appears to be a one-way limited-access highway,” he wrote in an email to Peduto. “They currently operate as though they have been given carte blanche access to our city.”

There were already signs of strain. Pittsburgh, which hoped hosting Uber would help it win the 2016 Smart City Challenge, a US Department of Transportation competition with a $50 million prize, at one point asked Uber to spend $25 million on a new transit connection from Carnegie Mellon to the neighborhood where it would be testing autonomous vehicles. Uber not only refused, but came back with a laundry list of things that Pittsburgh could do to better accommodate it (among them: access to bus lanes, designated pickup and drop-off spots for self-driving cars, “prioritization of snow removal” on self-driving car routes). “I would be voted out of office,” Peduto retorted. “You aren’t offering anything back to the public.”

But the real breaking point arrived last weekend on the heels of #deleteUber, a movement that started over a taxi protest in New York and ended up unleashing years of accumulated ill-will against Uber. In Pittsburgh, it gave local officials the courage to criticize Uber’s treatment of the city at last. Peduto, who attended a protest of Donald Trump’s immigration ban at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 29, said he was “very disappointed” in Uber and had “told their CEO so,” before slamming Uber’s “one-way” style of doing business. On Feb. 4, protestors marched on Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District and condemned its “one-way” partnership with workers.

The fallout wasn’t always inevitable, but with the way Uber has treated Pittsburgh it was only a matter of time. The ledger of their relationship is very full on one side, and quite empty on the other. Pittsburgh stayed quiet as Uber gutted Carnegie Mellon for robotics talent and welcomed its Advanced Technologies Center. It wrote a letter in support of Uber when the company was fined $11.4 million for operating in Pennsylvania without permission and opened its own streets to tests of self-driving cars. It played along with a hasty and elaborate media debut of those cars in September on mere days’ notice.

And for what? When I met Peduto that month, he was still optimistic about what Pittsburgh could gain from Uber: data to improve its smart traffic lights, additional services for its senior citizens and commuters with disabilities, substantial job growth if Uber moved any of its vehicle manufacturing processes to the city. Five months later, Pittsburgh has none of those things and Uber’s biggest show of affection has been a $10,000 donation to the local women’s shelter. A one-way limited-access highway indeed.

Two more years.

Here is a good take from Matt Novak at Gizmodo on that ridiculous Bloomberg story about NASA engineer Mark Moore, who Uber hired to develop flying cars. Moore tells Bloomberg that at least a handful of flying cars will greet the world in the next one to three years. Novak counters that flying cars have been marketed as “two years away” for at least a decade and calls the Bloomberg piece “a great little ad for Uber.” I’m inclined to agree. 

Super bowl ads.

Airbnb is getting blowback for the Super Bowl ad it ran this weekend in implicit defiance of Trump’s “Muslim ban.” The 30-second spot, “We Accept,” flashes through faces of different races. “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong,” the text reads. “The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” Airbnb, a vocal opponent of Trump’s executive order on immigration, claimed to pull together the ad in three days—“an effort that typically takes weeks or even months,” the New York Times reported. But as Inc.’s Jeff Bercovici later pointed out, the Super Bowl ad was actually repurposed from a commercial Airbnb unveiled in November to counter accusations of discrimination on its own platform. That doesn’t diminish other steps Airbnb is taking on human rights, which include donating $4 million to the International Rescue Committee (over four years) and aiming to house 100,000 displaced people (over five). But it does make the response feel a lot more opportunistic.

Worker benefits.

What would it cost for Uber to provide benefits to its 160,000-ish US drivers? The Roosevelt Institute has an estimate:

That's from a new report the think tank released on maintaining worker benefits in the on-demand or gig economy. The authors call for expanding the public safety net, creating privately negotiated portable benefits, and having companies and the government contribute more to worker protections. “It is now well past time to reimagine the existing, employment-based social contract and develop new institutions to provide economic security for to workers in the 21st century,” they write. It all seems very unlikely to resonate with the current US administration.

Other stuff.

Travis Kalanick leaves Trump advisory council. Steve Schwarzman: “Travis was in a really difficult spot.” Elon Musk defends decision to stick with Trump. Uber buys plane tickets. Tech condemns Trump’s immigration ban. Uber hands over more data in New York City. Uber’s Dishonest Data Dance. Uber suspends service in Taiwan. Grab commits $100 million to startups in Southeast Asia. Via launches in Paris. Florida court finds Uber driver ineligible for unemployment benefits. Enterprise Rent-A-Car denies $13,000 stolen car claim by Postmates driver. The US Is About to Exclude the Next Generation of Immigrant Entrepreneurs. Bill de Blasio won’t protect taxis. Airbnb committed to working with Singapore. Airbnb hosts fined for illegal listings in New York. New Jersey, DC, weigh new limits for Airbnb. UberPool Is Fighting an Unwinnable Battle Against India’s Creaky Infrastructure. Airbnb adds Lottie. Tech contract leaks. “Fake taxis.” UberHire. “I still have the business card of a Juno driver who tried to persuade me to hire him as a life coach.”