Judge postpones day of reckoning for Uber in Philly while taxis promise not to strike

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(Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia taxi drivers and disabled activists went to court today with high hopes.

The groups weren’t happy with a deal struck between the Philadelphia Parking Authority and Uber allowing the ride-hailing company to operate legally in the city for 90 days.

It was a short-term compromise also backed by state lawmakers, and the groups were aiming to undo the agreement ahead of the Democratic National Convention.

But the judge said on Friday that their objections would have to wait.

Judge Linda Carpenter said the deal might be flawed, but she can’t rule on it until after the 90-day reprieve. A new hearing was set for October 6. At the same time, taxi drivers who had previously threatened to strike during the DNC said they would stay behind the wheel.

Opponents of Uber who say the company operates in the shadow of the law in Philadelphia were heartened by some of Carpenter’s comments.

“The governor and legislator have the right to regulate taxicabs any way they wish,” Carpenter said. “But you can’t have two conflicting statutes. It just causes problems.”

Carpenter signaled that the PPA’s settlement agreement may be flawed, and very well invalid, but that debate can’t start until the end of the 90-day state law legalizing Uber. The judge characterized her ruling as a “hollow victory” for those petitioning against Uber.

Ronald Blount, who heads the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, said the fact that Carpenter did not dismiss his complaint gives him hope.

“The judge has problems with this agreement between PPA and Uber that violates the civil rights of people with disabilities and creates an unlevel playing field between two classes of workers,” Blount said.

The PPA has previously called Uber a “hack” company that runs afoul of state laws and regulations, assertions also supported by Carpenter in previous hearings.

But given the DNC, and SEPTA’s regional rail woes putting more drivers on the road, the PPA regulators think it’s in the public’s interest to give Uber a little break.

Matthew Clark with Taxis for All Philadelphia is pushing for Uber to become easier to use for wheelchair-bound users. He said the backroom deal needs to be put under scrutiny.

“The PPA can’t make rulings like this that affect the public without including the public in the discussions. So we’re going to make sure the public is present for this discussion, and let them know, that we’re not going to take this anymore, and that it needs to change,” Clark said.

By change, Clark means Uber should stop dodging the regulations all other taxi services have to follow.

Uber has dealt with this argument in nearly every major city in the country. The company says first, technically it’s not a taxi service.  Uber executives assert they’re in their own special category. And they contend their insurance, background checks and inspections are even better than what cities require.

So both sides will meet again in court this fall, when Uber’s 90-day break passes.

Until then, taxi leaders say no big strikes are planning, because they think it might distract from the legal fight. This follows threats earlier this month of causing “chaos” during convention week. 

Clark, meanwhile, said there will be a rally for disabled riders on Tuesday at 9 a.m. at 701 Market Street pushing for ride-sharing companies to be wheelchair accessible.

“It’s not insignificant at all, actually, that you have a coalition of taxi drivers, workers, and disabled people, holding a $60-plus billion company accountable like this,” Clark said.

Near the end of the hearing Carpenter asked PPA’s attorney Dennis Weldon, “So I guess I can download Uber now, at least until Sept. 30?”

“Yes,” Weldon replied. 

 

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