- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—ALBANY — The Andrew Cuomo you get sometimes depends on the day. Consistency is not the governor’s middle name.

Take his recent pronouncements on Uber, the car-ride company that’s desperately needed in the Capital Region as an alternative to our deplorable taxi service. In an interview last Wednesday on Susan Arbetter’s Albany-based radio program, Cuomo had this to say about Uber:

“Uber is one of these great innovations, startups, of this new economy, and it’s taking off like fire to dry grass. It’s offering a great service for people, and it’s giving people jobs. I don’t think government should be in the business of trying to restrict job growth.”

The context for Cuomo’s words was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bizarre (and failed) attempt to limit Uber’s growth despite its incredible popularity. (Uber operates in New York City, but is essentially illegal upstate due to state insurance regulations.)

Listen to that Cuomo and you assume that he gets it. He understands what services such as Uber are offering and why they’re important. He understands it would be a mistake to interfere with “this new economy.”

But then consider the tonal shift by the governor a day later when he was again interviewed on Arbetter’s show, “The Capitol Pressroom.” Talking about Uber’s desire to operate upstate, he said:

“This would make them a statewide transportation network, and the consumer now needs representation … We’re going to need a statewide regulatory framework for Uber.”

So to recap, the governor on Wednesday said Uber is offering a great service for people. On Thursday, he suggested that consumers need representation to protect them from that very same service.

What happened?

Did Cuomo have a bad Uber experience Wednesday night?

That isn’t to say that there isn’t room for sensible regulation of Uber, whose customers request a ride via their cellphones and are picked up by a driver using his or her own car. The cars must be properly insured, of course, and some states have begun requiring background checks for Uber drivers.

But the words “sensible” and “New York state government” are rarely used in the same sentence. The worry here is that regulations will be more about protecting the existing taxi industry — which donates heavily to political campaigns, including Cuomo’s — than about making sure that New Yorkers have access to Uber or similar services.

That would be especially unfortunate in the Capital Region.

I last wrote about Uber in April, when Matt Baumgartner and Vic Christopher were among those pushing the Legislature to resolve the insurance issues that keep the company out of the region. Baumgartner and Christopher are in the restaurant business, meaning both frequently try to arrange cab rides for their customers — which, around here, is a frustrating experience.

“Every time I call a taxi for a customer, it’s always a debacle,” Christopher told me.

Obviously, the push to allow Uber upstate failed. The state Senate passed legislation that would have fixed the insurance problem, but it fizzled in the Assembly.

That has all sorts of ramifications.

Mostly, the impact falls on the poor, who have no choice but to rely on taxi service that’s erratic, at best, if not downright predatory. But the impact also falls on all of us who share roads with inebriated drivers who would have called a ride service they could trust, or those who might choose to live car-free if Uber were around to take them to the supermarket.

And what about the taxi companies?

“I have a single answer for them: Do a better job,” said Chris Higgins, a county legislator who representsdense Albany neighborhoods where many residents don’t own cars. “Let’s have more choice. Let consumers make these decisions.”

That’s exactly right. Why do taxi companies deserve protections that aren’t available to other industries, including the newspaper business, that are being disrupted by the online economy? Why should taxi companies be allowed a monopoly?

Some seem to believe that protecting taxis equates to defending “good jobs” and that allowing Uber equates to promoting what’s derided as the “gig economy.”


Taxi driving is one of the most dangerous jobs around — Uber drivers, by contrast, don’t carry cash — and cab companies are sometimes accused of operating rolling sweatshops. And in this area, most cabbies are independent contractors, not employees, making them little different from Uber drivers.

So what does blocking Uber really protect?

The ability of taxi companies to continue doing a terrible job — at the Capital Region’s expense.

[email protected], 518-454-5442, @chris_churchill


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