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A Bunch of Uber Fans Protested at New York's City Hall Tuesday

Dozens of the ride-sharing company's employees and fans hung out with sandwiches and swag as NYC lawmakers debated new regulations.
Uber fans and employees rallying at New York's City Hall on Tuesday. Photos by Pete Voelker

In front of New York City's City Hall late Tuesday morning, Team Uber was out in full force.

There was no shortage of Uber swag—sunglasses, hats, boxes of t-shirts emblazoned with the ride-share service's clear insignia. A deck of placards sat on the ground nearby, along with dozens of Potbelly sandwiches to feed the demonstrating troops. There were more than enough supplies for the hundreds of people were supposed to gather on the steps of the building, per a company press release.


In the end, somewhere between 50 and 75 people actually showed up.

Uber brought plenty of swag—and Potbelly sandwiches—to its rally Tuesday. All photos by Pete Voelker

The show of force was a response to a City Council Transportation Committee hearing on two bills—both of which are backed by the private Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC)—that target the rapid growth of the hugely popular app, along with the other "for hire" car services that operate 500 or more cars around the city.

One bill would cap the addition of new cars for services like Uber at 1 percent per year. (As it stands, nearly 19,000 Uber drivers roam the streets of New York.) The other bill would study the effects of ride-sharing services like Uber on congestion, a major concern of Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration. If the study, which is directly linked to the restriction on growth, isn't finished by next August, the cap on Uber drivers would be lifted.

On the steps of City Hall, Josh Mohrer, who manages Uber's New York base, repeatedly said that Uber cars make up 1 percent of the 2.7 million cars entering the city every day. He also asserted that 15,000 New Yorkers take their first Uber every week (perhaps not including those that just do it for that initial free ride, like this reporter). He also touted the economic benefits Uber provides to the city, like supplemental income, market competition, and more reliable access to the outer boroughs.

If the legislation is passed, Mohrer argued, 10,000 jobs will be lost, the result of which will be longer pick-up times and higher fares for riders. Mohrer also derided what he called the "medallion millionaires" behind the bill, a reference to the TLC, which isn't exactly the most popular business organization in town. (In the meantime, Uber has been accused of price gouging via its "surge-pricing" scheme in high-demand neighborhoods).


"You're here because you care about Uber, you rely on the service to get around New York City, or because you support the earning opportunity Uber provides you and your loved ones," Mohrer said to the cameras and the fans.

In light of French police arresting Uber executives on Monday for allegedly running an "illicit" service, the scene at City Hall offered a narrow window into the company's broader fight to push out the old transportation guard. But at the rally on Tuesday afternoon, it was difficult to distinguish who came out, and why.

Behind Mohrer, a crowd stood holding placards like the one that read, "de Blasio: Keep Brooklyn Jobs," and chanting things like, "Hey ho, de Blasio, this new bill has got to go!" An Uber spokesperson told me that these folks were "mostly riders" who came out to support the company. Before the event, Uber offered free rides to those who were willing to come out to City Hall.

So who in their right mind would voluntarily come out to support a phone app in the middle of a workday in lower Manhattan?

Some people decked out in Uber gear told me they were full-time employees. These guys were a bit more noticeable: standing behind the cameras, cheering on the crowds, and taking photos on their phones, perhaps to throw on Twitter or Facebook in hopes of amplifying the impact. They were the ones handing out the placards, shirts, and sandwiches.

That isn't to say there weren't drivers, too, though. Carlos Campellin, who didn't wear an Uber shirt but proudly carried a placard, told me he's been driving for Uber for three months. The service, he said, is more flexible and lets him spend time extra with his family. After receiving an email from Uber, he came out on Tuesday to show his pride.


"These yellow cab taxis, none of them will bring you to the Bronx if you ask," he told me. "We'll go anywhere. Uber doesn't care." (Just ask the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico.)

But as soon as you stepped out of the immediate perimeter of City Hall, the Uber orchestra was barely audible. Instead, you were met with a short line of New York City yellow cab drivers who shared their own distaste for TLC's policy towards Uber from behind a barricade.

Basically, to drive a yellow cab in New York, you have to get your hands on a medallion, which used to be worth upwards of a million dollars. A portion of fares is typically used to pay off medallion debt on a monthly basis, with drivers pocketing the rest as wages. But since 25,000 'for hire' vehicles hit the city's streets since over the past four years, medallion value has plummeted. As a result, cabbies told me that their fares have dropped and the banks have ramped up debt collection.

One driver named Jaswinder Singh showed me his 'Notice of Seizure' from a local bank, in which he was ordered to pay $117,000 within ten days. "How am I supposed to work like this?" he asked me. "It's destroying the peace of the city. Why did I have to buy this medallion from the TLC, when Uber drivers just have to pay for their own gas?"

"New Yorkers don't know what we're going through," another yellow cabdriver, Jaspreet Singh, told me. "We don't have time to come out and protest like this, because we're working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. We're here now because of how much debt we're all in."

"If the city doesn't stop Uber," Singh warned, after an Uber employee offered Potbelly sandwiches as a sort of peace offering, "this city will lose all of its yellow cabs."

Follow John Surico on Twitter.