The Great Debate / Uber in Western New York

Illustration by Nicholas Jackson


On one hand, say supporters, Uber and similar ride services have benefits, like giving consumers more (and more modern) transportation choices and new job opportunities. On the other, say those opposed to the model, there are troubling issues, beginning with undercutting workers’ rights and de facto discrimination against already underserved areas and people. Spree has asked two prominent advocates on opposite sides of the issue to discuss their views and why they hold them.


Harper Bishop is the economic and climate justice coordinator at Open Buffalo, a community movement for social and economic justice. John Gavigan is the executive director of 43North, the annual business competition that brings tech-based start-ups to Buffalo to vie for $5 million in prizes. Bishop and Gavigan’s opinions are not necessarily those of their affiliated organizations.


What is your position on ridesharing services in Buffalo, and why?


Harper Bishop: I’m not against ridesharing: I’m against companies profiting on the backs of working class people who would not be served well by the Uber model as a transportation solution. Uber is the poster child for the sharing economy, which, despite its fuzzy-sounding name, is exploitative.


The basic description is that the sharing economy uses technology to connect individuals, so that one can provide a service that another one needs. However, ridesharing drivers are considered independent contractors; the model allows corporations and the people who own them to make huge profits while absolving them of the burden of providing fair wages, benefits, and other worker protections. Drivers have no say in setting prices, and, if they voice any complaints, Uber can simply deactivate them.


In 2016, Uber spent $2 million on advertising upstate to convince people that, without it, their cities are arcane and outdated. The truth is that by seeking alternatives, we’re standing up for workers’ rights and a more regenerative economic model.


John Gavigan: I believe unequivocally we should and need to have it here. 


Number one, for safety. It could put a further dent in drunk and fatigued driving. 


Number two: while we’re already late to the game, we’re the largest city in America without ridesharing. 


Three, it’s an economic benefit. If we’re really going to be a tourism community, which Buffalo Billion data says is our number three economic driver, we have to have it.


Number four, our current taxi system is poor, and our public transport system needs work. The city is geographically spread out, and, for a good portion of the year, our weather doesn’t necessarily support walking or riding a bike. 


Five, it’s a new employment opportunity. In addition, it’s an example of the way the world is going. People are looking to save minutes and leverage assets. It’s an embarrassment to our community not to be a part of it.


What are the negatives or challenges?


HB: One of capitalism’s tenets is trying to extract the most wealth from a certain place; this discriminates against rural areas and doesn’t provide access for low-income folks. We want to be innovative and build local economies. We also need industry rules and regulations. Taxi fleets are required to have vehicles that provide for handicapped and disabled passengers. We want to protect workers, allow them to unionize.


JG: When the status quo is disrupted, there’s a certain demographic of the work force that will suffer consequences. As manufacturing companies become more automated, or begin working with robotics, workers need the skills to keep pace. I’m empathetic to that. 


Technology is quickly transforming our world; it’s becoming about velocity of execution. That’s a call to action that we need to continue to develop and reinvent ourselves.


What are alternatives?


Harper: Instead of stripping away protections, we need progressive and innovative solutions. We need good jobs that provide a living wage, that allow workers the dignity to communicate with their employers without ramifications. 


I do want people to get home safely; unrestricted and unregulated ridesharing comes with a cost, though. We should be thinking about expansion of the public transport system; that could alleviate the problem and provide access for low-income folks.


One idea is cooperative taxicab services, where the workers are in control of the business. Cooperatives can work with local government to create a framework. It would be inspiring to build that and be a national model. We can self-determine our future and create solutions that work for us…and are by us.


JG: I like the governor’s proposal of extending the light rail system, connecting the suburban university system to its downtown hub.


I’m concerned that the wrong people will benefit from the stalemate. Local politicians who don’t support the initiative with their full weight should be on call; I believe that, instead of our best interests, they’d have special interests at heart.


There is an opportunity to negotiate a mutually beneficial outcome, and one that protects the interests of as many stakeholders as possible: however, being the largest city without ridesharing doesn’t necessarily position us as the type of innovative city we’re projecting to be.


Jana Eisenberg is a frequent contributor to Spree.


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