ProMarket Student Editor Surya Gowda speaks with Georgetown University postdoctoral fellow Katie J. Wells about her new book with Kafui Attoh and Declan Cullen, Disrupting D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City. Wells discusses how Uber stepped in to solve local government failures, but introduced new problems in the process.

When American cities were dealing with issues of broken transit, underemployment, and racial discrimination in the 2010s, Uber promised solutions. The rideshare company, which was founded in 2010, provided hope for commuters frustrated with delays from public transportation systems like the Washington Metro (and even, in rare cases, susceptibility to catching on fire); drivers looking for a side hustle that would allow them to pay for an engagement ring or arrange their schedules such that they could take care of their families; and minorities finding it difficult to catch a cab due to racial profiling among taxi drivers. But did the company ultimately create more problems for cities and their inhabitants than it solved?

In their new book, Disrupting D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City, Georgetown University postdoctoral fellow Katie J. Wells, City University of New York professor Kafui Attoh, and George Washington University professor Declan Cullen argue “yes.” Drawing on interviews with rideshare gig workers, policymakers, Uber lobbyists, and community organizers, the authors describe how Uber provided stopgap solutions to myriad transportation issues, but in the process created or exacerbated other problems, such as discrimination against riders of color and tenuous labor protections and benefits for gig workers. At a higher level, Wells, Attoh, and Cullen argue that when citizens look to private companies to fix public services and policy shortcomings, it reduces their demands and expectations of what local governments can and should achieve. The consequence is that voters and local governments fail to imagine sustainable solutions to their public problems, leaving them dependent on private firms and overlooking how those firms further erode public governance.

ProMarket interviewed Wells to discuss what Uber promised cities, whether or not it fulfilled its promises, and how it gained the upper hand in its relationships with local governments. We also talk about what it would take to work toward a future in which Uber’s presence in cities is less questionably to cities’ benefit—and, more broadly, to reimagine what cities and city politics can be.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation with Wells, which has been edited for clarity and length.

Surya Gowda: Your book is entitled Disrupting D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City. How has Uber changed the way that local government works, both in Washington, D.C., and beyond?

In the United States, the company has been involved in what’s called state preemption, which is a move away from decentralized government decisionmaking. The idea of decentralized government is allowing localities to make all kinds of decisions about how they operate—maybe a locality has a tax on commuters or a congestion fee or maybe there’s a levy for public schools. Uber has pushed against this by trying to prevent localities from setting a minimum wage or requirements for data sharing. 

Uber drivers produce not only a service called ride hailing but tons of data every minute. That data has been used in really wonderful projects like determining whether the vibrations of the San Francisco Bay Bridge are indicative of bad infrastructure health. But, as Uber’s chief executive recently admitted, it’s also used to create a personalized pay system. [Editor’s note: Worker pay is dictated by a set of algorithmically determined data inputs, such as real-time supply and demand conditions, market competition, and historical driver data, such as ride acceptance rates.] The old adage of equal pay for equal work goes out the window. Let’s imagine a locality like Chicago wanted to say, “I actually think that everybody should get paid the same amount for the same labor.” Uber has historically argued against a locality having the authority to do so and has often gone to states to get them to eliminate it.

There’s other ways in which Uber has affected the ability of cities to provide services, but one of the harshest things it has done is limit the ability of government officials to see—it’s put a veil over their eyes. And maybe Uber is awesome for the world, but unfortunately, policymakers don’t have the ability to determine that for themselves.

Would it be fair to say that Uber has the upper hand in its relationships with city governments?

I think that is a fair description. I hope it’s not true, but that is what our research indicates. I want to always leave open the possibility that we’re only able to know a tiny bit of what’s out there. Certainly, in other countries there’s been a flip of that power dynamic. 

You can look at the United Kingdom, where they say to Uber, “Okay, you can operate here, but you have to ensure workers a minimum set of rights,” which means holiday pay, sick pay, worker benefits, workers’ comp if you’re hurt on the job, death benefits if you’re killed on the job, as well as some data sharing so that workers and policymakers have the ability to understand the operations of the business better. We can also look at countries like Sweden or Denmark that have said, “You know what, this is not compatible with what we imagined to be a sustainable place given that the world is on fire.” We know that, 40-60% of the time, vehicles used by Uber drivers are empty on the road, we know the “forever chemicals” in their tires create harm for cities’ ecosystems, and we know Uber jeopardizes the idea of working class jobs. So there are places in the world that have said, “No, we don’t think so.” 

Think about M&Ms, the candy. They’re made really differently in the U.S. than they are in the European Union. In the E.U., they’re not permitted to contain this harmful red dye, Red Dye No. 2, but in the U.S., we say that’s fine, we give that to children. We know the same company creates different kinds of products in order to adhere to the rules that are set by states. And so I believe that thinking about Uber in this way shows us that the same company can operate quite differently if regulators set different rules.

What made D.C. and other American cities think conceding to Uber’s demands was a good idea?

They thought it was a good idea because they are so broken. Uber identified a real problem in American cities. Now, was that problem the racism of private chauffeur services like taxis? Was it the fact that paratransit services—that is, services for disabled residents—were in poor condition? Was it the fact that policymakers and transit professionals didn’t have a lot of data about what was happening on their streets? Yes.

Uber also offered something really huge in the wake of the Great Recession. And this is the argument of our book, which is that nobody thought Uber was going to save their city but neither did they think the city government itself could do it. The public’s expectations for what city governments can do are low, and so Uber didn’t have to do that much work to be slightly better with its promises. And it did offer real promises to people that are unemployed or underemployed. Was that a false promise that was limited in scope? Sure. But the reality is, we have public institutions that are broken in all kinds of ways, so Uber comes in as a Band-Aid to say, “Well, I know you have a lot of problems. I’ll offer you something.”

Now, we argue based on our work that Uber’s promises are largely unfulfilled. However, we have to take seriously why those promises are so popular, which is that people are struggling, cities are struggling. Now, is this the greatest solution? In my opinion, no. But I think we have to understand why those promises were so attractive.

Could you give me a few examples of Uber’s promises going unfulfilled?

Absolutely, I’ll give you three. 

The first is regarding the question of taxi services being racist. It’s very hard to hail a taxi while being a Black man. So Uber said, “We’re colorblind, we’ll come in.” But for the last decade, I have seen no independent research that has shown that Uber services themselves are not racist. More importantly, their workforce is a majority Black, majority immigrant workforce. So the idea that Uber is promising some version of racial justice sort of belies the reality that it’s undermining the well-being of this majority people-of-color workforce. And so the idea of racial justice in Uber’s eyes is just limited to this idea of consumption. If racial justice just means that a wealthy person in Hyde Park is able to get a taxi whether they are a person of color or not, that’s not really progress or progressive racial justice in my eyes. Additionally, Uber driver after Uber driver will tell you exactly what neighborhoods they won’t go to. There have been studies that show that passengers with Black-sounding names had to wait demonstrably longer for rides on the platform. And so this idea that the free market was going to somehow address these issues of racial justice—I think those are quite unfulfilled as promises go.

With regard to disability rights, it is the same thing. There have been all kinds of tens of million dollar settlements between Uber and advocates for disabled residents about their rights to the chauffeur service. And so, in fact, a lot of people say the American Disabilities Act should be applied to Uber, and I think so, too, to ensure that people in a wheelchair aren’t discriminated against either because of price or wait time.

Thirdly, I think Uber’s promises about freedom for workers have been unfulfilled. Study after study has shown that these workers don’t really have the ability to earn when they want and where they want. You can log on and it doesn’t mean you’re going to get money. You also take on debt as a course of this work—these are really precarious jobs with a lot of financial risk. In D.C., and I know in Chicago, there’s also a lot of physical risk that these workers take on. You can Google “carjacking in Chicago” and see how many of these drivers have been killed even in the last year. [Editor’s note: A 2021 analysis by The Markup found that at least 124 ride-hail and delivery drivers had been carjacked in the U.S. over the previous year and a half.] There is also the issue of pay transparency. Uber drivers in the U.S. lack the simple ability to know what they’re going to be paid before they accept a ride.

And so I think Uber’s promises go quite unfulfilled with regard to labor, disability rights, and racial justice.

How, if at all, has the public responded to the failures of the company?

I love that question. I haven’t thought enough about how the public has responded to the failures of the company and the failure of those promises. I hope that our book contributes to a reimagination of what public institutions can and should do and what social services and civic organizations can do, but I don’t have enough evidence to say for sure.

Perhaps we’ll have a better picture of the situation a few years down the line.

Yeah, but, I will say, we end the book with a story about this one worker who has these horrific experiences with Uber, but at the end of the day she sort of defends the gig economy, because who else is gonna look out for her and what other safety net does she have? She’s somebody for whom the idea of the government stepping in and improving her life is outside the scope of her imagination. So will there be a greater reckoning with these companies? I hope so. But I don’t know that they’re building the kind of future I want for my family.

Is it possible that declining trust in the government’s capabilities has gone hand in hand with increasing confidence in private companies?

I don’t necessarily know that it’s even confidence in private companies. A lot of the workers and policymakers we followed for five years weren’t delusional. They didn’t think Uber was going to save them or somehow save the city. They just thought, “Well what other option do I have?” Not to say it was a Faustian bargain, but it was sort of a short-term solution with really long-term costs. Not everybody is privileged enough to think in the long-term vein or make decisions with long-term costs in the purview. 

The title of the book was created by Princeton University Press, but, in my mind, the book is really called “Low Expectations.” We called the book’s introduction that because this is a story about what happens when we have low expectations for public institutions. The result is that we get really, really deep into bed with companies like Uber. 

I don’t know if you saw what happened in Minnesota last year. Let me just say, I think it’s a very telling story. After years of organizing by immigrant drivers, the state legislature in Minnesota said, “Okay, we’re going to pass the $15 minimum wage for Uber drivers.” But the governor, who had never used a veto in five years, vetoed the measure. And even though he was a supposedly pro-labor governor, this is what he said. Uber and Lyft had threatened to pull out if they passed this measure, and he said, “Who else is going to provide ride services to elderly and disabled residents in rural areas?” The point here is that the state is being held hostage by its own inadequacies. And so who is going to say let’s rally so we can get disabled and elderly residents public transit? Who argues for public transit anymore? That idea is so far gone, so now we have governors protecting Uber and Lyft because they know that residents need something the state doesn’t provide.

Finally, I want to ask how you think local governments and their capacities can be reinvigorated. In other words, where do we go from here?

I worry terribly about the state of democracy given what has happened to the state of journalism, and it infuriates me that, even in D.C., we lost two of our local journalists at our local NPR station, and they weren’t replaced. I don’t know how local governments will be strengthened, repaired, or enriched until we have more journalists’ jobs protected. I think the sharing of stories is an important part of the process, and I hope that our book becomes part of a chorus of people being willing to speak out to say, “I want to live in a city that is semi-functional in the future, and I want to make sure that Uber’s involvement in that city is one that benefits us.”

Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.