Ride-hailing services lead to frustrations at Dem convention

Greg Nash

The reliance on ride-hailing services to get around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention has been a source of frustration for some attendees trying to navigate the crowded city.

“My favorite part of the Uber tent at the DNC is how you can’t get an Uber at it,” joked journalist Stefan Becket on Twitter Wednesday night. His complaints about the so-called Uber Rider Lounge were echoed by other people on social media, many of them working in media. 

Others on social media praised Uber, with one person calling the lounge “amazing.”

{mosads}The company acknowledged that it had work to do earlier in the week.

“With a sudden thunderstorm, unexpected subway closures, protesters blocking roads, and security limitations that prevented cars from entering the perimeter during peak exit times, well, for some it wasn’t our smoothest ride,” said Uber in an email to convention attendees who used the application on Monday night.

Uber has an unconventional setup in Philadelphia, where a partnership with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has granted the ride-hailing giant an exclusive parking lot to use to connect riders and drivers.

Attendees can wait in an air-conditioned lounge with refreshments and a place to charge their phone while their car is en route. When it arrives, the passenger receives a text from the driver with their location and is directed by an Uber employee to that space in the lot.

Drivers have to go through a security checkpoint at the edge of the convention’s perimeter. Uber has also taken steps to try to stop non-Uber drivers from entering their lot.

The company said on Thursday that it had taken steps throughout the week to ameliorate some of the frustrations with this arrangement, although long wait times were still reported after convention activities had ceased for each night.

More Uber employees, currently numbering in the dozens for the convention, are now on site to help facilitate the process. And the company is now using a second lot, expanding the operation’s capacity from roughly 400 cars at any given time to approximately 700. 

“Thanks to the hard work of thousands of drivers and our ongoing collaboration with the [Democratic convention], we’ve been able to improve the Uber experience getting to and from Wells Fargo [Center],” said an Uber spokesperson in a statement. “We’re continuing to encourage more drivers to get on the road, working to make the process even more efficient and looking forward to serving convention-goers once again this evening.”

The company said that during peak hours the number of cars on the road had tripled during the convention compared to a normal weeknight. Uber said more than 10,000 drivers have completed at least a single trip since Monday, when the convention began.

Monday night also saw a 60 percent boost in trips for the company.

Uber is guaranteeing that drivers will receive certain fares during peak hours to convince them to serve the convention crowd. One offer gave drivers the equivalent of three times the rate of a ride under surge pricing, but the company says that cost wasn’t passed along to riders.

Lyft, Uber’s main U.S. competitor, is running similar promotions for drivers. But they lack the benefits Uber gets through its partnership with the convention. 

A Lyft spokesperson confirmed that, earlier in the week, the company had heard reports from drivers that Lyft vehicles and taxis were being turned away from the security perimeter by people wearing Uber shirts.

“It’s unfortunate that Uber has reportedly been making it harder for drivers to do their jobs and for passengers to get around,” said the spokesperson.

Lyft riders can be picked up in a lot near a hotel a mile from the convention center as well as at a second lot, according to the spokesperson. 

An Uber spokesperson said that “there were some cases in which non-Uber rides attempted to drop off at the [convention]-assigned Uber lot” earlier this week but that the issue had been addressed.

In exchange for getting access to the exclusive lots, Uber is providing the DNC with a system of cars to ferry convention VIPs around that can be hailed through the Uber mobile application. The company also spent money building out the lounge. 

Uber is sometimes perceived as being close to Democrats because David Plouffe, a former top counselor to President Obama, sits on its board and is a senior adviser to its leadership.

When asked if Plouffe had been involved in the negotiations with the convention, a spokesperson for the company noted that the same offer had been made to the Republican National Committee for their convention in Cleveland. The Republicans and Uber never reached a deal.

Plouffe was in Philadelphia this week and participated in a panel on Tuesday with Airbnb’s Chris Lehane to discuss the on-demand economy and the presidential election. Partway through, his phone rang. As he got ready to leave, he told the crowd why: He had an Uber to catch.


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