Uber hasn't lived up to its end of the bargain in Pittsburgh

May 23, 2017

A few months ago, everyone seemed to be hating on 2016. Between its nonstop run of celebrity deaths and the highly contentious U.S. presidential election, more than a few folks were eager to wish last year good riddance. 

Unfortunately for Uber, 2017 is the new 2016.

There have been so many awful headlines about the ride-sharing company and its CEO bro, Travis Kalanick, we probably don't need to recap them here. (But just in case, click here. And here. And don't forget here.)

In fact, there have been so many low points in Uber's recent past that the high points stand out--high points like the company's relationship with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it surprised everyone last August by rolling out a fleet of self-driving cars.

Unfortunately, even that relationship seems to have soured. Last summer, Mayor Bill Peduto welcomed Uber's arrival with open arms, but nine months later, he and others are having plenty of second thoughts

Pittsburghers have a range of issues with Uber, but four come to the fore as examples of the company's failure to live up to its promises:

1. No support for a federal grant. In 2015, Pittsburgh applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a $50 million grant that would've been used to upgrade the city's transportation infrastructure, reducing congestion on roads and making it easier for self-driving vehicles to navigate. Uber initially supported the application, but the company declined to provide important matching dollars to make Pittsburgh's application competitive. Ultimately, the DOT awarded the grant to Columbus, Ohio. 

2. No jobs. As Uber was planning its autonomous car test track in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, company reps indicated that they wanted folks from the community to work there. To date, however, none have been hired. And worse, as Uber continues its push toward fully self-driving fleets, there are real concerns that Uber's 4,000 local drivers could soon find themselves out of work. (Then again, if city officials had been paying attention, that shouldn't have been much of a surprise.)

3. No data-sharing. Pittsburgh had asked Uber to share traffic data from its autonomous cars--data that could help the city pinpoint traffic problems in real time and identify crumbling infrastructure elements, among other things. Uber says that it plans to share the same kind of info it shares with other cities in which it operates, but Pittsburgh was hoping for more detailed data than that.

4. No free rides. To generate interest and business, Uber told Pittsburghers that rides in the company's self-driving cars would be free. But by January, the company was already charging fares for those rides. 

Most frustratingly of all, many of these problems might've been solved if only Uber had been asked to sign some sort of agreement. Unfortunately, all Peduto received before handing Kalanick & Co. a metaphorical set of keys to the city was a firm handshake. Thus, there was nothing to hold over Uber's head when the company failed to follow through on its promises.

To its credit, Uber has brought nearly 700 tech jobs to Pittsburgh via the company's Advanced Technologies Center. That, in turn, has breathed new life into one neighborhood called the Strip District.

Uber also says that it's willing to work with Pittsburgh to resolve some of the differences outlined above. However, it's unclear whether the company is willing to do as much as city officials want. 

Meanwhile, Peduto is reaching out to other transportation companies, including automakers like Ford, which is centering some of its autonomous technology work in the Pittsburgh area. Hopefully this time, Peduto will get the details in writing.

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