Sharing Economy

New York's Dumb War on Uber

It's time for policymakers in Albany to bring ridesharing to all New Yorkers.


"Uber is one of these great inventions, startups, of this new economy and it's taking off like fire to dry grass and it's giving people jobs. I don't think the government should be in the business of trying to restrict job growth."

This quote came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo back in July 2015. Today, a year and a half later, New York's state government still does not allow ridesharing services to operate in upstate New York. This inability to adapt to new business models leaves millions of New Yorkers with fewer transportation options and work opportunities.

In November 2015, Uber estimated that expanding ridesharing across the state would create 13,000 jobs. If anything, this estimate is too low. Uber has 30,000 active drivers in Pennsylvania, a state with a similar population to New York's when excluding New York City.

Admittedly, most of these jobs would be part-time, as half of Uber drivers work on the platform for under 10 hours a week. Some critics of ridesharing's business model worry about part-time work–but flexible work is a feature, not a bug. Because drivers set their own schedules and use their own cars, a wide array of people benefit. Everyone from single caregivers and full-time drivers to college students and retirees can earn additional income by partnering with ridesharing companies.

New Yorkers realize these diverse benefits even if some of their elected representatives do not. Earlier this year, a Siena College poll found that "at least two-thirds of voters from every [New York] region and every [political] party support legislation to allow ridesharing companies such as Uber to operate in their areas." Overall, support for legalized ridesharing was 80 percent. Additionally, elected officials from cities across upstate New York recently sent a letter urging state policymakers in Albany to allow these services to expand. Even with support from the governor, the public, and influential mayors, attempts to expand access to ridesharing continually fail.

The ridesharing fight will continue in Albany during the 2017 legislative session. This upcoming legislative debate will center around background checks for ridesharing drivers.
Uber and Lyft currently use name-based background checks to screen potential drivers. While ridesharing's safety record has shown that this approach works, some insist on mandating fingerprint background checks for drivers as a condition for state-wide expansion.

Ridesharing companies have been through this fight before. Uber and Lyft both famously left Austin, Texas, after the city required fingerprinting. Alternatively, after a long debate, Maryland recently declined to mandate fingerprinting when the state's Public Service Commission ruled that the name-based background checks were just as effective.

If New York insists on fingerprint background checks, then it would become the first state to require them. This would be a mistake because, even though fingerprint background checks sound secure, they are unnecessary, ineffective, and discriminatory when used for job screening purposes instead of for law enforcement purposes.

Fingerprinting leads to otherwise qualified and safe drivers being denied work opportunities. If someone is arrested but then found not guilty or never charged with a crime, that information would need to be updated by law enforcement for fingerprint background checks to be effective. Yet this follow-up step is often overlooked, which leads to discriminatory results. The Urban League, NAACP, and National Black Caucus of State Legislators all oppose fingerprinting requirements for this reason.

Fingerprint background checks are only as effective as the databases of fingerprints that they pull from. In Maryland, certain traffic violations—including DUIs and reckless driving incidents—would not show up through fingerprint background checks. Name-based background checks avoid this failure by querying thousands of courthouse and law enforcement databases to find relevant records.

Though it is true that some localities, including New York City, require fingerprint background checks for for-hire vehicle drivers, that is not an argument to extend these requirements to ridesharing across the state. Instead, the ample evidence in support of more effective—and less discriminatory—alternatives to fingerprinting should lead to taxi and livery drivers being allowed to use name-based checks.

Besides Austin, Buffalo is the largest U.S. city without Uber. Residents of Binghamton, Rochester, Albany, Syracuse, and the rest of upstate New York are all similarly left with fewer transportation options and work opportunities because of political inaction. Misguided concerns over fingerprinting are no excuse. It's 2017, and that means it is long past time for Empire State policymakers to bring ridesharing to all New Yorkers.