Last night, Erin McCann, an assistant news editor for The Guardian, complained on Twitter about being kicked out of a cab at a busy intersection in Williamsburg because the driver agreed to pick up an Uber customer instead. In response, Josh Mohrer, the general manager for Uber in New York, wagged his virtual finger at McCann. By reporting what happened, he said, McCann "threatened" the driver's livelihood and ability to feed his family.
Mohrer was less concerned about drivers when he personally ordered and cancelled rides on rival apps in the dead of winter to dick over startups competing with the $3.5 billion company.
He didn't stop with one superfluous, condescending tweet. Mohrer accused McCann of threatening the driver a couple more times and implied that she snatched a day's wages out of his hands by objecting. Mohrer also insinuated that McCann didn't know the e-hail rules in New York and that's why she was making "trouble" with the TLC. He went on to insist that there was "nothing shady or illegal about what happened."
Since Mohrer himself seems confused, I spoke to the Taxi and Limousine Commission about whether the driver's action was permissible. Spokesperson Allan Fromberg told Valleywag:
Of course, it's absolutely unacceptable for a medallion taxi driver to have accepted a hail, and then reject the passenger in favor of another. We strongly encourage that passenger to report the details, so that we can take whatever actions are appropriate, once it has been investigated and adjudicated. The penalties for service refusal are severe, and we take such reports very seriously.
Fromberg encouraged riders to report complaints to 311 or 311 online. In response to questions, Ashwini Chhabra, the TLC's deputy commissioner for policy & planning, also told Valleywag that once a taxi driver accepts an e-hail, he's supposed to turn off the on-duty light. The driver's actions were not illegal, but "It's against our rules," said Chhabra:
After accepting an ehail, the driver is supposed to extinguish the rooflight so that he isn't holding himself out as available to street hailers. If the rooflight is on, the driver can't refuse the street hail. TLC rules require a boro taxi driver to have turned off her/his rooflight when traveling to pick up a pre-arranged trip.
As everyone but the man in charge of Uber NY seems to get, McCann was not trying to punish the driver, but alert authorities that the insertion of a $3.5 billion private company into the city's public infrastructure is negatively impacting citizens (on the way to Uber's IPO).
This scenario is exactly what the City Council worried about when they debated a pilot program to test e-hailing:
"What happens if you are a senior citizen or a disabled person and you do not have access to the apps or you don't know how to work with them?" asked committee chair James Vacca. "Somebody with an app will be able to hail a cab and you'll be standing in the street longer than you normally would."
When other people on the Twitter thread pointed out that attacking someone for asserting their rights as a passenger was a shitty excuse for customer service and that Mohrer might not be such a prick if McCann's objection was from a man, he apologized.
The most troubling thing about the exchange might be the fact that Uber believes its own driver empowerment hype, despite evidence to the contrary.
Update: It looks like everyone is confused! TLC spokesperson Allan Fromberg wrote to Valleywag to clarify his previous statement:
sorry, realizing now it may have been a green cab....apologies....in fact, Street Hail Liveries (green cabs) don't have medallions, so it's not e-hail so much as the traditional Uber dynamic. That said, it doesn't change the fact that the hail takes priority if the cab was on-duty at the time of the hail.
Fromberg also said that a green cab (or borough taxi) should also have to obey the same rule about turing off the on-duty light after accepting a fare through Uber.
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