Even though it’s an app-based service, Uber is not available everywhere. In fact, there are five major cities in the entire world that currently don’t have Uber: Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Frankfurt, and Buffalo (Fortune.com).
That’s right, Buffalo is the largest city in the country that doesn’t have ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. There are 475 cities in the world with these services. Buffalo, a city with 259,000 people (not including the suburbs), a major university with two campuses, multiple public and private colleges, a downtown arena, and a professional football team, is not one of those 475? What could possibly be the reason for that? What is really going on here? To answer these questions, I covered all the possibilities.
Maybe Buffalo wants Uber, but Uber doesn’t want Buffalo. Sounds more like a weekday- afternoon soap opera than a business model to me. I mean, that could be the reason; however, it seems extremely unlikely. And, as it turns out, it seems unlikely because it is not true. The Associated Press quotes Uber’s New York General Manager, Josh Mohrer saying that “Buffalo is now the largest American city by population that doesn’t have Uber. My goal is to go where we’re not” (link here). By not including Buffalo and the rest of Upstate New York, Uber is more than aware of the losses.
In fact, Uber claims that every day in Buffalo more than 2,000 people try to use the app (link). Throughout the whole state, that number turns into 60,000 people per day. The technology-based company is currently campaigning hard. So, it’s safe to say that Uber wants Buffalo.
Next, I followed my initial Buffalonian instinct: This was the work of Buffalo’s Mayor, Byron Brown. And from talking to people around the city, this seems to be what the majority believes too. But as it turns out, the mayor is on board. He stated, “I was also impressed with (Uber’s) commitment to flexible employment opportunities, ranging from part-time to full-time employment opportunities for city residents” (link). Byron Brown wants Uber.
Last May, Brown discussed his support on WBEN-AM Radio. In the interview, he emphasizes the issues with the State government, which does make sense, considering the whole of New York doesn’t have Uber except for New York City. He even plugs a local support rally planned to show Albany our desire for transportation network companies. (You can listen to the Mayor’s complete interview here).
So, there lies the problem. Albany is the reason why Buffalo doesn’t have Uber. The major bill on this topic is NYS Senate Bill S4108D, proposed by State Senator James L. Seward. If the bill passed, we’d all be getting an Uber driver to take us to Allentown next weekend. And it did pass the NYS Senate on June 17, 2016 (link), but it stalled out once it reached the State Assembly.
In response to Seward’s bill, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, being the cunning politician that he is, proposed a new bill on the topic, except this new bill (A08195) would require a huge insurance increase for Uber drivers. Insurance increases that, Uber claims, would make the costs for the drivers too high (The link for that bill is here). Since the new bill made unrealistic insurance requirements, Cahill’s bill extinguished Buffalo’s Uber without actually throwing any water on the flames. Pretty sneaky, huh?
Assemblyman Cahill is a Democratic representative from Dutchess/Ulster, two counties that are close to the only place in New York with Uber: New York City. As of right now, that is where the state government stands, and Buffalo isn’t any closer to reaching the future of technology-based transportation services.
Albany’s harsh position on Uber is reflective of another bill (S6380A) that makes advertising a short-term home rental illegal. In other words, a bill that makes using Airbnb.com a crime. Although this bill sounds absolutely nuts, when you consider the fact that New York City collected 1.8 billion dollars in hotel-tax revenue in 2015 (NYS: View full report here), it really doesn’t sound that nuts at all.
These kinds of bills and restrictions hurt Buffalo. They are opportunities missed for the entire Buffalo economy. But for now, the rest of the country has a technological advantage that we simply do not have.
Okay, so what is so great about Uber anyway?
For those that don’t know about Uber, it’s an app-based transportation system. Drivers register through the app/website, get virtually screened and cleared, and drive for passengers, who find the drivers through the same app/website. For safety concerns, all financial transactions are handled by Uber. No cash, no tips.
Every member (driver/passenger) has a rating. If a driver or a passenger is a creep or acts inappropriate, they get negative ratings on the app and are essentially kicked out of Uber. Think about it through the online free market Ebay. If a buyer or seller has bad reviews, no one is going to do business with them. Uber functions in the same way. Instead of online free markets for goods, like Ebay, it’s an online free market for transportation.
Uber is a simple idea but the ground-level impacts are big. It carries the potential to be a major player in local economies. For example, it’s an opportunity for the unemployed and underemployed, people with certain disabilities, and/or the student population to earn money. Take a look at this graphic that involves Uber’s influence on London’s unemployed:
London’s areas of high unemployment have lots of Uber drivers, and this correlates to other populations too. That person that got laid off from his/her factory job due to company downsizing. That student balancing a dissertation, two seminars, and lecturing in two classes. That freelance writer that wants to submit more work but works long hours at a day job. That parent trying to earn extra cash for his/her kids’ college accounts. Driving for Uber is a possible solution for these people. In a recent survey, “88% of Uber drivers claim more flexibility and balance between their driving and other responsibilities compared to other employment” (Uber.com).
And Uber isn’t just about the drivers, passengers can benefit too. The app can serve as a reliable, affordable solution for people to get to work. In Buffalo, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s ACS Report, a lot of Buffalonians rely on public transportation for this reason. The statistics place the Queen City as the 17th highest in the whole country, right between Atlanta and Miami. (View the Full Report Here).
Then there is drinking and driving. New York State reported 7,849 alcohol-related car crashes that resulted in 270 deaths in 2014 (NYS DMV Report-2014). When Uber is introduced to cities, there is a consistent reduction in alcohol-related incidents. California saw a 6.5% decrease in alcohol-related crashes, and Seattle’s DUI arrests dropped 10%.
Even the major, large-scale players in the fight against drunk driving recognize Uber’s potential. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) National President Colleen Sheehey-Church stated, “Thank you to the Uber driver partners who are ensuring that riders have access to a reliable ride and for helping keep our streets safe.” Considering that MADD is the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping impaired driving in the entire country, this statement carries some weight.
Okay, but if these drunk drivers can call Uber, why can’t they call a cab? Well, for one thing, Uber has wider coverage. In Chicago, 52% of Uber rides start where taxi services are not available (Uber.com).
Second, the price difference. Buffalo taxi fares range roughly from $2.50 to $3.00 per mile. Numbeo.com places the Buffalo average at $2.75 per mile plus tips. With Uber, you can typically cut that price in half and, remember, no tips allowed.
The third reason, wait times. Speaking from personal experience, a taxi pick-up on a Friday or Saturday night will take a while. A long while. In the suburbs, the waits can be in the 3-4 hour range and that assumes the cab even shows up at all. With Uber, you set-up an appointment to get picked up, and, if the ride is more than two minutes late, the driver gets charged late fees.
Are any of these problems with taxi services an excuse to drink and drive? Absolutely not. Drunk driving is selfish and dumb. However, I will say that Uber makes it extremely easy not to drink and drive, while the taxi companies tend to make it extremely difficult not to drink and drive.
When there is a guarantee of a relatively cheap lift just a click on a smartphone away; even the most irresponsible, careless, and piss-hammered drunkard is probably going to get that ride. Hell, that person can even make an appointment with a driver, so he/she wouldn’t even have to click that smartphone at all, just set-up the appointment before the liquor.
That’s my pitch. Buffalo can have less unemployment, the underemployed and student population can make more cash, getting around the city can be much easier, and more people to spend more money downtown. Hell, Uber can even save lives on our roads.
The legalization issues surrounding this app-based service in Albany is obviously not crystal clear. For some reason, certain members of the NYS Assembly are really against it. But, if you ever decide you want to ask and/or tell the elected officials in Albany how you feel about Uber’s ban in Buffalo. Clicking HERE is a good place to start.
-Cover Image: Clip from “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” dir. Ana Lily Amirpour