Uber and PDX: A Not-Exactly-Love Story

portlandia-season3jpg-8db045a98a646a17So here we are talking about Uber again. I promise, it’s for a good reason. This story by Alexis C. Madrigal — about two of the giants of our age, Portland, OR, and Uber, duking it out for dominance — is both riveting journalism and totally bonkers.

First Uber tried to sweet talk its way into the city, bringing the legislature flowers and Champagne. The legislators were like, thanks, we’re more into craft beer, though, and our own (admittedly dysfunctional) black car and taxi system.

Then Uber started wooing Portland’s next-door neighbor Vancouver, followed by Portland’s dependents, the suburbs. All of this went smoothly. Then it sidled into Portland itself, without an invitation, set up shop and began doing business. It relied on the fact that even the progressive good-white-people types who populate the city will try the service — for convenience, and to save money — and become addicted and ultimately rally the legislature to allow Uber to operate in the open.

In other words, the people of Portland will do Uber’s work for it.

Your move, Portland.

Uber launched in Portland on December 6 without the city’s approval—and according to a source in City Hall, without even reaching out to city officials to tell them they were doing so. The city, in turn, hit the company with a lawsuit. Uber continues to operate without the city’s consent. …

Let’s say, for sheer argument’s sake, that Portland officials really like Uber. Let’s say they even would like to have Uber in their town. Still, they need Uber to play by the rules, or else they’ve set a miserable precedent for the next Silicon Valley-backed corporation to run roughshod over their regulations. To Portland’s elected representatives, the way Uber has smashed its way into markets raises real questions about the nature of representative democracy. 

As Madrigal puts it, “One of Uber’s strengths is adopting the pose of the underdog in every local fight, even though it is a $40 billion global corporation.” Now they’re doing the seductive outlaw thing too.

The strategy doesn’t always work, though, and their PR is far from foolproof. The company recently offered refunds to Sydney residents after charging extortionate rates to help them flee the city center during the hostage crisis:

users trying to leave that area saw surge pricing was in effect at four times the service’s normal rate, with a minimum fare of AU$100, or $82.

Unbridled capitalism during an emergency is not a great look for anyone. But it won’t matter much for the fate of the company. The poor we will always have with us — and as long as we do, we will have Uber, too.

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