TIME Congress

Political Candidates Took 7,625 Uber Rides in the Last Election

Uber At $40 Billion Valuation Would Eclipse Twitter And Hertz
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Uber Technologies Inc. logo is displayed on the window of a vehicle after dropping off a passenger at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014.

Sen. Al Franken has “serious concerns” about Uber’s commitment to riders’ privacy, for which company executives have, in his estimation, shown “troubling disregard.”

The on-demand car booking service, Franken further asserted in a letter to the company, has used customers’ information for “questionable purposes,” such as tracking the travels of journalists and businesspeople.

But the Democrat from Minnesota has another distinction: Like numerous other federal politicians that could help or harm the upstart tech firm’s business fortunes, Franken is himself an Uber client.

In all, about 275 federal political committees together spent more than $278,000 on at least 7,625 Uber rides during the 2013-2014 election cycle, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign spending records indicates.

That’s a roughly 18-fold spending increase from the previous election cycle, when federal committees together spent about $15,000 on Uber services. It represents a veritable monopoly, too: Almost no political committee used Uber’s direct competitors, Lyft and Sidecar, according to the analysis, and traditional taxi use declined precipitously.

Bipartisan love of Uber abounds, with politicos of all stripes composing a de facto Uber caucus, voting with their money for a wildly popular but controversial company.

Users include Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Republicans such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; and a host of political action committees, super PACs and national party committees.

“Uber is the most safest, most reliable and convenient transportation option,” company spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo said when asked why politicians of all philosophical leanings are so readily embracing its services.

Uber itself has also become decidedly political of late.

Most notably, Uber has hired dozens of lobbyists and former political operatives — top President Barack Obama adviser David Plouffe among the latter — to plumb the pathways of power both in Washington, D.C., and most of the nation’s statehouses.

Much is at stake for the 6-year-old company: Its “ride share” services are still unsanctioned or even illegal in some communities, and Uber has at once aggressively sought governments’ approval to legally do business — while minimizing the kinds of strict operational rules and regulations that taxi and other ground transportation companies must often comply with.

Company officials, who regularly tout Uber as a way to reduce drunk driving and boost local economies, have also sought to calm political nerves following a jolt of bad publicity.

Uber drivers have been accused of and arrested for sexual and other assaults. In November, a top Uber executive threatened to publicize details about the personal life of a female news website editor who had publicly criticized Uber. The company has also caught heat for its use of “God view” — an interface that allows some employees to track the movements of its clients, politicians included. Its chief executive, Travis Kalanick, devilishly told Vanity Fair in December that he’s “like fire and brimstone sometimes” when sparring with detractors.

At the federal level, Uber spent $200,000 last year on government lobbying efforts and has already spent $110,000 during this year’s first quarter, according to federal records. (Lyft, which didn’t return requests for comment, has spent $40,000 so far this year.)

Uber in 2015 has used one in-house and seven contract lobbyists to, in its own words, lobby on “issues related to expanded consumer choice and small business opportunities through app-based technology,” among other concerns. Several of them previously worked for members of Congress, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Meanwhile, Uber lobbyists advocate for the company in 45 out of the nation’s 50 statehouses, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state lobbying registration records indicates.

Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming are the only states where Uber doesn’t appear to have formally registered lobbyists operating on its behalf.

This much is certain: Uber has indeed begun reshaping the way political candidates and campaign staff mobilize resources and move themselves around, said Matt McDonald, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies, which last year published a white paper about Uber and politicians that asserted, “The nature of oversight changes when someone is both regulator and consumer.”

And that, McDonald added, “is all for the better if you’re Uber.”

Privacy practices concern Franken

Politicians’ shades-of-gray relationships with Uber contrast with red-and-blue Washington, D.C.’s frequent black-or-white stances on all sorts of issues: immigration, taxation, oil pipelines, same-sex marriage.

Take Franken, among the U.S. Senate’s most outspoken critics of Uber.

An aide readily acknowledged the company’s utility, both for his governmental and campaign offices.

“He still believes the company has not adequately answered his questions about some of its privacy practices and continues to have concerns about how its employees access, retain, and share customer data,” Franken spokesman Ed Shelleby said, while also noting that “no prohibition for services like Uber, formal or informal, exists in either office, and Sen. Franken himself has taken Uber.”And even the most ardent Uber supporters, such as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who mentions the company when lauding the “democratizing force of technology” and is sometimes personally courted by the company when traveling, today sound notes of caution when discussing it. No U.S. Senate campaign spent more money on Uber last cycle than that of Booker, which ran a $4,689 tab.

Booker “believes ride hailing services can provide good quality, competitively-priced, reliable transportation to customers but shouldn’t be exempt from regulations that ensure consumer safety and privacy,” said spokeswoman Silvia Alvarez, adding that the senator and his staff use a variety of transportation options, “from taxis and Uber to New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and the subway.”

Some of Uber’s top users simply don’t want to discuss the company at all anymore.

The campaign committee of Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., spent more on Uber services last election cycle — nearly $17,000 — than any other federal political committee. The committee reported 835 Uber transactions during 2013 and 2014, or more than one per day.

Moore personally takes Uber rides because she doesn’t have a car in Washington, D.C., and underwent two knee surgeries in 2013, her office told The Wall Street Journal last year, prior to some of the company’s PR flaps.

Moore’s office declined to comment on whether Moore is concerned about Uber’s privacy standards or business practices.

“This week, our focus has and will continue to be the federal budget and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank,” spokesman Eric Harris told the Center for Public Integrity.

Emily’s List, a political committee that advocates for Democratic women who support abortion rights, ranked No. 2 in spending — $12,675 — on Uber services during the 2013-2014 election cycle. Representatives there did not return requests for comment.

Other political committees that spent at least $7,000 last election cycle on Uber rides are the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Politicians are certainly free to travel as they please, said Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab, a Republican and chairman of the Kansas House Insurance Committee.

But Schwab, who backed a bill that aimed to impose tough safety and insurance regulations in Kansas on Uber and similar companies, says the company isn’t concerned about what’s best for the state’s residents.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a fellow Republican, vetoed the bill last month in the name of “an open and free marketplace.”

Then last week, Uber hired Brownback’s former campaign manager as a lobbyist.

“They don’t really want to see leaders govern or the will of the people prevail in making good policy,” Schwab said of Uber. “I have never seen any company operate like that …. They just want to win like it is a knock-down, drag-out primary campaign.”

Back in Washington, D.C., Addis Gebreselassie, vice chairman of the Washington, D.C. Taxi Operators Association, likewise wants politicians to believe that Uber, for its talk of innovation and positive disruption, is more destructive than anything.

While taxi drivers in the nation’s capital are heavily regulated, from the fares they may charge to how they’re licensed and insured, Uber drivers are not, Gebreselassie argued.

He called on federal politicians, in the name of fairness, to stop using Uber. He also appealed to lawmakers’ safety, saying they’re putting themselves and their staffers at risk by taking rides from lightly regulated drivers who might be inexperienced, or worse, dangerous.

“We don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” Gebreselassie said. “But maybe they won’t see what’s happening here until a big accident happens.”

He sighed.

“How painful it is to be here in the United States, in Washington, D.C., and be treated like you’re in the Third World,” he said.

Convenience wins out

Perhaps it’s because hailing a car through Uber’s mobile app is more convenient, and less harried, than calling a cab.

Maybe members of the political class have endured one too many trips with a taxi driver who couldn’t follow directions, or wasn’t hygienic, or seemed more concerned with yakking on his cell phone than stopping at stop signs.

Whatever the reason, Uber doom-saying and Uber bashing isn’t much affecting the steady march of politicians toward its services, even if its top users appear more reluctant to wax effusive about the company.

Already this year, several dozen federal political campaigns and committees have reported taking trips through Uber, federal records show, even if the teeth of the 2016 election season remain months away. Taxi use is less common than Uber use so far this year.

The company has already run a variety of specials around elections and political gatherings — to new users, a free ride on Election Day, for example — and McDonald of Hamilton Place Strategies predicts the 2016 election could be rife with Uber innovation.

Think software that allows campaigns to book Uber rides for voters, gratis. Or loyalty programs that further sweeten the experience of Uber transport.

“To the extent that campaigns can use these tools to their advantage, they will,” he said. “For taxi services, maybe this is a situation where you want to change the fundamental quality of your product, because you can’t fake your way through this.”

Kalanick, the Uber chief executive, explained in a recent company blog post why the firm will continue to assert itself in the political arena.

“Our roots are technology, not politics, writing code and rolling out transportation systems,” Kalanick wrote. “The result is that not enough people here in America and around the world know our story, our mission, and the positive impact we’re having.”

He’ll have plenty of surrogates on the campaign trail.

Chief among them: Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s successful re-election campaign and has called Uber “one of the most innovative companies in America.”

Messina’s on Uber’s payroll as a consultant.

He’s also a leader of Priorities USA Action, the chief super PAC backing Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Alexander Cohen and Reity O’Brien contributed to this report

TIME Uber

Uber Is Not in Kansas Anymore

After lawmakers overrode the Governor's veto of a restrictive new bill

Uber shut down its operations in Kansas on Tuesday after state lawmakers overrode Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill that would impose new rules on ride-sharing services.

The Republican-held Senate and House both had more than a two-thirds majority to override the veto of the bill, which would require drivers undergo Kansas Bureau of Investigation background checks and enhance its auto insurance, the Associated Press reports.

“We’re saddened by the loss of hundreds of jobs, safe rides and transportation choice for consumers in Kansas,” Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said in a statement, the Kansas City Star reports. On Tuesday afternoon, users in Kansas were prompted with this message:

Only last month, Uber was celebrating an agreement with the city council in Kansas City and the continuation of its operations there. A main competitor, Lyft, has not operated in the city since the fall.

TIME apps

Uber Rolling Out ‘SOS Button’ That Helps Cops Track Cars

Uber At $40 Billion Valuation Would Eclipse Twitter And Hertz
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Uber Technologies Inc. logo is displayed on the window of a vehicle after dropping off a passenger at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014.

The feature is India-only for now

In the company’s latest response to a high-profile rape accusation made in India last December, ride-hailing service Uber is rolling out an “SOS button” in parts of the country that connects passengers with local police when pressed.

When a passenger taps Uber’s new SOS button, they will be immediately connected via phone with local law enforcement. Additionally, their location data as well as passenger and driver information for the ride in question will be transmitted to the police:

 SOS Button
UberUber SOS Button

For Uber, getting the SOS button’s data-sharing features to work requires the cooperation of local police. Uber beta-tested the feautre in Kolkata and is “in advanced discussions with authorities in multiple cities across India to deploy this solution in the coming weeks,” the company said in a blog post Thursday.

Uber’s new SOS button, which expands on a less powerful feature introduced last year, comes after a 25-year-old Indian woman filed a lawsuit against Uber in January claiming the company didn’t do enough to screen out a driver she accuses of raping her last year. Uber has since taken other steps to bolster its safety record in India, including rolling out stricter driver background checks.

However, complaints over the company’s safety record have not been limited to India. Several Uber passengers across the United States have claimed that Uber drivers kidnapped and, in some cases, assaulted them. Uber said in December it would take steps to improve its driver screening process in the U.S. after several lawmakers and regulators across the country began pressuring the company to ensure a safer experience. When reached for comment, an Uber spokesperson said “we have not announced any plans outside of India.”

TIME Companies

Uber Is About to Change Dramatically

Uber
Getty Images

The company looks to be planning a massive same-day delivery program

Uber’s evolution from a car-hailing service to a delivery operation appears to be underway.

The San Francisco, California-based company is in talks with hundreds of big-name retailers for a same-day delivery program, TechCrunch reports. Some of the high-end brands talking to Uber about same-day delivery include Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and Hugo Boss. The service would allow for quick in-city deliveries from retail locations to customers; it wouldn’t involve warehouse shipments.

Uber has experimented with rapid order delivery in the past, but now it appears for the first time to be working on a dedicated app for the service. Eventually, Uber plans to allow drivers to pick up human passengers and merchant cargo all from within the same app.

While expanding from moving people around cities to moving cargo might seem like a big change for Uber on the surface, it isn’t all that different in practice. Uber is best understood not as a ride-hailing service but as a logistics platform for short-haul trips, powered by big data and intelligent algorithms. It’s also investing heavily in driverless car technology, which could help it cut human drivers out of the equation entirely. Uber, then, is well-positioned to compete with the likes of UPS and FedEx when it comes to quick in-city deliveries.

Read more: Uber Will Deliver Food in 10 Minutes in NYC. Seriously.

MONEY Food & Drink

Uber Will Deliver Food in 10 Minutes in NYC. Seriously.

Uber will begin offering food fast food delivery in New York City by partnering with local restaurants.

TIME Innovation

How to Reduce Earthquake Deaths

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. We know how to reduce earthquake deaths. So why aren’t we doing it?

By Brad Plumer in Vox

2. Your next bus might be an Uber.

By Lisa Nisensen in Strong Towns

3. Here’s why a woman is twice as likely to die during childbirth here than in Saudi Arabia.

By Danielle Paquette in the Washington Post

4. You don’t own your medical data, but getting a peek could save your life.

By Niam Yaraghi and Joshua Bleiberg at Brookings

5. DARPA’s magic bullets change course to hit moving targets.

By Rich McCormick in the Verge

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME apps

Uber Brings Food Delivery to NYC and Chicago

Fern salad made from fern with quail eggs.
Noel Celis—AFP/Getty Images

Company promises to bring you lunch in 10 minutes

Uber is expanding its food delivery service to more cities. The car-hailing app company announced that it will begin delivering meals to residents of New York and Chicago after piloting the service, called UberEats, in LA and Barcelona.

In New York on Monday, Uber was offering two lunchtime meals, a sandwich and a spring salad, to people in midtown Manhattan. The app promises to deliver the meal curbside within 10 minutes or less. The offerings will change daily, Uber said in blog post.

The lunch-delivery service, which places Uber in competition with the food ordering app Seamless, is just the latest expansion for a company whose ambitions extend far beyond replacing taxis. Uber has also been testing a courier service in New York and an on-demand delivery service in Washington, D.C.

TIME Sports

This NFL Player Wants to Moonlight as an Uber Driver

A.J. Francis playing for the Maryland Terrapins in 2012.
G Fiume—Getty Images A.J. Francis playing for the Maryland Terrapins in 2012.

His reasoning? "The only thing better than NFL money is more money"

A.J. Francis is a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins, but is he also a defensive driver? We only ask because the Miami Dolphins player is on the hunt for an off-season job where that skill will come in handy.

The 24-year-old former University of Maryland Terp wants to be an Uber driver.

The tweet generated some buzz with handfuls of Francis’s 8,000 followers wondering, understandably, why a NFL player would need the extra cash. Francis’s response: the only thing better than money is more money.

Washington Post sports columnist Des Bieler also says given the fickle nature of the NFL, Francis may need the cash soon, too. He was cut from the Patriots in 2013 before the Dolphins picked him up and reportedly spent the 2014 season on injured reserve.

MONEY credit cards

One Easy Way to Get 20% Off Your Uber Rides

Uber on mobile phone
Victor J. Blue—Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new promotion from CapitalOne and Uber could save certain cardholders big money.

CapitalOne cardholders, rejoice. Your Uber rides just got cheaper.

Starting April 21, the ridesharing giant is offering a 20% credit on all rides to CapitalOne customers who use a Quicksilver or QuicksilverOne credit card. Uber users simply need to add an eligible card to the app and select it as a payment option, and the credit will be applied on their statement automatically on every ride through April 30, 2016. Cardholders new to Uber can sign up anytime before June 30 with the code CAPITALONE and receive their first two rides (up to $30 each) free .

If you don’t already carry one of these cards and you use Uber often enough, it might make sense to apply.

Quicksilver, which was featured in the 2013 edition of MONEY’s Best Credit Cards, offers 1.5% cash back on anything you buy and a $100 bonus reward if you spend $500 in the first three months. There are more generous cash-back cards out there—the Chase Freedom card offers 5% cash back on certain categories of purchases and 1% back on everything else, and the Citi DoubleCash card gives 2% cash back on all items—but if you’re an avid Uber user, there are significant savings to be had with Quicksilver.

The same may not be true with QuickSilverOne. The card, which is targeted to buyers with “average” credit instead of the “excellent credit” the basic Quicksilver requires, offers no $100 bonus and charges an annual fee of $39. If you can’t qualify for the standard card and you’re using Uber often enough that the cash-back savings add up to a lot more than $40, then QuickSilverOne might still be for you. But Uber fans with good enough credit should stick with the Quicksilver.

 

TIME Courts

Uber to Face Lawsuit Claiming Discrimination Against the Blind

Some blind passengers with guide dogs allege they have been refused service

A California court has ruled that ride-sharing service Uber must face a lawsuit that claims the company has discriminated against blind people by sometimes refusing service to passengers with guide dogs.

A magistrate judge in San Jose said in a decision last week that the plaintiffs could argue that Uber is a “travel service” subjected to the parameters of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Reuters reports, rejecting Uber’s position that the plaintiffs couldn’t sue under the ADA. The company issued a statement saying drivers are told it’s policy to comply with all laws related to the transportation of passengers with service animals.

The plaintiffs allege there were at least 40 instances when blind passengers with service animals had been refused service, with some drivers yelling “no dogs” to potential riders. In one case, the plaintiffs claim, one Uber driver was said to refuse a blind woman’s request to pull over after she learned her guide dog was locked in the vehicle’s trunk.

The company, which has faced global complaints about its drivers’ pay and passenger treatment, has two weeks to respond to the complaint.

[Reuters]

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