Al Sharpton backs Uber in battle for New York City

Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton has waded into New York City’s Uber debate, defending the ride-sharing app and arguing that it helps minority communities.

The city is considering proposals to freeze the number of Uber licences, owing to overcrowding on roads and dwindling revenues for yellow cab drivers. Six drivers of yellow cabs have committed suicide in New York City in eight months, including a man who fatally shot himself outside City Hall after writing a long post on Facebook about the dire effects of the competition.

But Mr Sharpton said Uber was a lifeline for minority communities, concentrated in the outskirts of the city.

“They’re talking about putting a cap on Uber,” he wrote on Twitter over the weekend. “Do you know how difficult it is for black people to get a yellow cab in New York City? This isn’t about Uber. It’s about Us-ah. We need to stand up for us.”

He also used his weekly Harlem rally to speak out in support of Uber.

“I’m trying to get to work, I’m trying to get to school – I want somebody that’s going to pick me up,” he said.

“Some yellow cabs won’t even go uptown or to parts of Brooklyn. If you are downtown they won’t stop.”

Mr Sharpton’s intervention will likely delight Uber, which is currently running a television campaign to prevent the city imposing limits, with the slogan: “Don’t strand New Yorkers”.

Uber has started a social media campaign against the proposed freeze, and this year created a website that emphasises the number of trips “in areas long ignored by yellow taxis and where access to public transit is limited.”

“We are growing fastest in the outer rings of the outer boroughs because we are serving communities that have been ignored by yellow taxis and taken for granted by the MTA,” said Josh Gold, a spokesman for Uber, referring to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Uber statistics, he said, show that ridership in neighbourhoods such as East New York in Brooklyn and Kingsbridge in the Bronx had more than doubled since this time last year.

The city council proposals, which could be voted on as soon as August 8, would put a freeze on new permits for drivers, while an impact study is carried out. That could lead to a cap on the number of for-hire vehicles, which would be a first for a major American city.

There are more than 100,000 for-hire vehicles in New York City, up from 63,000 in 2015, according to the city. More than 80,000 of them are associated with ride-hailing apps.

The increase has led to congestion on city streets, according to a 2017 report, and contributed to the troubles of the yellow cab industry.  The value of a yellow cab medallion – which is required to operate a taxi – has plummeted since 2014, when the city last held a medallion auction and one was sold for $1 million. In June, prices ranged from $165,000 to $700,000.

Mr Sharpton’s concerns are echoed by other civil rights organisations, including the National Urban League and the NAACP.

But Corey Johnson, speaker of the council, said that the proposals would not affect any existing service.

“I understand concerns people of colour have about being denied service,” he said. “But the vehicles that are out there now will remain out there.”

He added: “We are not saying Uber is bad. They have met a significant need. We are saying the industry needs to be regulated.”

Mr Johnson said the legislation would allow vehicles to be added to specific neighbourhoods, if the taxi commission determined that access to service was being hurt during the year-long study. Wheelchair-accessible vehicles could also be added.

“This is about fairness, reducing congesting and helping drivers — many of whom are black and brown, and are making such low salaries they are living in poverty.”