In DC, Uber picks the wrong corner

I live and work on the northeastern edge of Washington, DC, two blocks from the border with Maryland’s Prince George’s county. As in any city (I lived for many years in Brooklyn before it became cool, and before that in Queens, which has never been cool) the farther you get from downtown DC the harder it is to hail a cab when you need one. So the introduction of ride-sharing services like Uber and LYFT here was a particularly welcome development for those of us on the periphery of things.

Yet as anyone at all familiar with the demographic geography of DC would know, the east side of the city is predominantly African-American, as is my little corner of it.  The Michigan Park neighborhood where I live is a pleasant community of single-family homes but would never be mistaken for a hipster enclave. Its population is made up mostly of retirees, many of whom have lived here for decades, and a growing number of young families (both black and white) drawn by the back yards and solid, still affordable (by DC standards) housing stock (for the record, apart from the need of affordable-ish housing, my wife and I fall into none of those categories).

While it’s easy enough to arrange an Uber ride out here, Michigan Park (which can be seen in the upper right part of the map below) falls outside either of the two delivery zones for the Corner Store same-day delivery service Uber began testing in Washington this week.


The shaded areas, where Uber is delivering, cover the affluent, predominantly white Northwest quadrant of the city and the affluent, predominantly white area around Capitol Hill.  Apart from the gentrifying enclave of Columbia Heights, Northeast DC is off the grid.

I’m personally unlikely to make use of the service in any case (anything to get out of the home office) so it’s no skin off my back. But the service area’s stark alignment with the economic and racial divisions of the city has gotten a lot of play here, most of it unflattering to Uber.

To be sure, there are likely defensible business reasons for rolling the service out that way. The on-demand delivery of convenience items (click here for the complete list of available items) is a luxury service, aimed at people with more money than time and willing to pay the slightly higher prices Uber is charging (delivery itself is free), and you’ll find more of those people in Dupont Circle and Georgetown than in my neck of the woods. Uber is also emphasizing speed, which means the delivery area needs to be within easy driving distance of wherever they’re warehousing the goods at this early stage. And to be fair, Uber has said it plans to expand the delivery areas if the service catches on.

But it’s still a tone-deaf move. The District, as the city is known locally, is undergoing a kind of disruption of its own. It’s one of the few big cities to experience a net gain in population over the past few years, fueled largely be an influx of young, predominantly white, transplant attracted to the area’s growing number of technology jobs and to the District’s growing number of hipster (again, by DC standards) neighborhoods.

Though still majority African-American, DC is no longer the “Chocolate City” (as the locals called it) of 20 years ago. It is rapidly becoming both more diverse and more affluent. And as with any city that undergoes rapid demographic change, something of a political contest for power has begun to develop between the old guard and the newcomers.

The contest has been comitial enough so far, but tensions arise, particularly where gentrification by relatively affluent newcomers is pricing many long-time residents out of the neighborhoods they grew up in. “Managing the city’s growth,” as the issue is euphemistically referred to here, has become a dominant issue in city council and mayoral races.

That’s the state of play in which Uber is now trying to navigate. As it has in other jurisdictions, Uber in DC has already clashed with local interests and regulators. In June, licensed cabbies staged a demonstration that brought traffic in the city virtually to a halt for several hours to pressure the city counsel and the Taxi Commission to impose limits on ride-share services, and both the council and the commission are working on proposed regulations.

Uber (and LYFT) have a history of ignoring regulators and their rules. In Virginia, they ignored repeated orders from the Department of Motor Vehicles to cease operating in the state before winning temporary authority to operate from the governor’s office earlier this month. The Maryland Public Service Commission this month approved rules placing limits on ride-share operators, which both Uber has also ignored (while again appealing to the governor).

No business, if it means to stick around, can forever stand apart from the political and regulatory process. Sooner or later, every industry and business needs friends in high places, a fact even Uber seemed to acknowledge this week when it hired Barack Obama’s former campaign manager and White House aide David Plouffe as its new head of global branding, communication and policy.

That’s as true in the District of Columbia as anywhere else. And given the shifting the political dynamics in the city, Uber will need to drive carefully, if only to avoid making unnecessary enemies. Allowing its new delivery service to be branded locally as a service for white people, even if inadvertent,  was a wrong turn.