Scrappy sharing champion Uber playing power politics

We evolutionary types love to tout the disruptive and democratizing virtues of the “sharing economy.”  From tool-sharing libraries to the “live like the locals” charm of AirBnB and the high tech click-and-ride dazzle of Uber, sharing taps into our practical, connective, and reinvent-the-economic-system desires.  But wait, what’s this?

Over the past year, Uber built one of the largest and most successful lobbying forces in the country, with a presence in almost every statehouse. It has 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols around the nation, at least a third more than Wal-Mart Stores. That doesn’t count municipal lobbyists. In Portland, the 28th-largest city in the U.S., 10 people would ultimately register to lobby on Uber’s behalf. They’d become a constant force in City Hall. City officials say they’d never seen anything on this scale.

Yikes! This is one of several stories over the past year that have cast a bit of light into the shadowy aspects of the sharing economy; it’s not all rainbows and unicorns after all. A recent article from BloombergBusiness takes a detailed look at the way Uber muscled its way into Portland, Oregon, led by David Plouffe, campaign manager of the 2008 Hope and Change unicorn express.  By the end of the process, and of the article, everyone seems relatively happy with the outcome, but getting there was a far cry from the collaborative vision of the sharing economy.

In a town Portland’s size, City Hall can juggle only so many issues. Alpert told Uber that before the city could deal with a taxi battle, it had to address more pressing matters, starting with the $21.5 million budget shortfall Hales inherited. “I explained to them that there was going to be a process, and we were nowhere near starting that process,” he says.

That didn’t sit well with Uber. “Portland has some of the most extreme protectionist laws that we’ve seen around the country,” Kalanick told a local TV station. A few days later, Uber defiantly said on its blog that “outdated local regulations” didn’t prevent it from making deliveries, so it ran a one-day promotion serving ice cream around town. It was like when the company shuttled puppies from shelters to offices in 10 cities before the Super Bowl. In City Hall, the ice cream tasted like belligerence. “It was like, ‘Whoaaaa,’ ” Alpert says. “I know every city says this, but we are not used to that in Portland. It was just all about Uber.”

And while Portland’s process, harsh as it was, took place within familiar policy channels (at least once the ice cream was gone), taxi drivers in France recently took to burning tires and massing their vehicles to block access to airports in protest against Uber’s inroads there (and French police detained Uber executives for questioning).  While there may well be evolutionary societal benefits to the rise of the sharing economy, it’s clear that behemoths like AirBnB and Uber—both of which are making huge profits from millions of “sharing” transactions—are operating in a far different arena than the close-to-home sharing efforts championed by Transition and other localization advocates.

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