As Uber trumpets a new data-sharing partnership with the city of Boston, unveiled today in a company blog post, the on-demand ride service is continuing to fight the City of New York over requests for the very same trip-level data. That inconsistency in policy creates a challenge for the company as it seeks to win back the trust of riders and local officials following a series of debacles that appeared to reveal a cavalier attitude toward user privacy.
“We intend to make [the Boston reports] a national standard policy that we are going to offer any U.S. city,” Justin Kintz, Uber’s head of policy for North America, told the Wall Street Journal.
Kintz also said the company is specifically in talks with New York City officials about sharing data reports–but that is a claim the Taxi & Limousine Commission denies. “No communications taking place between Uber and the TLC could be characterized as their ‘being in talks’ with us. There are no negotiations to be had,” spokesman Allan Fromberg told Fast Company.
The New York commission requested trip data in October from the five dispatch bases Uber owned at the time, as part of a broader data request put to 16 high-volume bases operated by various livery cab companies. Uber refused to comply, citing “an individuals’ [sic] reasonable expectation of privacy,” and the commission suspended those bases earlier this month, leaving the company with just one New York City dispatch center. All six bases, plus a livery center that the company acquired yesterday, are currently operational while Uber appeals the commission’s decision.
In Boston, where Uber gained recognition as an official transportation service on January 3, the company brokered a deal with Mayor Martin J. Walsh that will associate trip data such as ride duration and distance traveled with users’ zip codes, in order to maintain their privacy. Boston plans to use the data for city planning purposes, from reducing congestion to preparing for events.
Elected officials in New York have been less than eager to collaborate with Uber, as the City Council debates a bill that would place a cap on the company’s controversial surge pricing. “If it looks like price gouging and if it sounds like price gouging, if it acts like price gouging, it is probably price gouging,” Councilman David Greenfield, the bill’s sponsor, said in yesterday’s transportation committee hearing, according to Capital New York. Greenfield has proposed limiting surge prices to twice the normal rate.
Taxi commissioner Meera Joshi testified at the hearing that she supports a cap in principle, but recommended changes to the bill. “It is essential that the City help ensure that consumers have true transparency about the prices they will be paying,” she told the committee. “I strongly support regulation surrounding surge pricing to protect passengers from egregious pricing.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought Uber into compliance with state regulations around price gouging during times of emergency after the company increased fares by as much as seven times the normal rate during a 2011 snowstorm.
At the moment Uber’s maximum rates are $39 per mile and $9.50 per minute, according to the commission–significantly higher than Lyft’s maximum rates of $6.43 per mile and $1.20 per minute. For-hire vehicles are free to set their own rates, provided they report them to the commission on an annual basis, or as they change.
The Boston deal, through which Uber will provide anonymized, trip-level data on a quarterly basis, serves as a lone victory following a week in which the company found itself increasingly under siege in cities around the world. As the headaches over potential shutdowns grow more severe, the company is hiring dozens of policy and communications staffers and reducing prices in 48 U.S. cities.
“As we have grown, so has our ability to share information that can serve a greater good,” Uber told Fast Company in response to requests for comment. “We look forward to partnering with cities across the country to deliver data that will help cities achieve their transportation and planning goals without compromising personal privacy.”