Regulating Uber and Lyft

- New York City labor lawyer Daniel Bright speaks of the legal distinction between employees and independent contractors. Drivers for Uber -- and other ride-sharing services -- straddle those definitions, setting their own hours and working out of their own cars but doing so at rates set by their companies and giving those motherships a percentage of every fare.

"I suspect ultimately that the courts are going to find they're independent contractors," Bright said.

Uber would welcome that result. But in Seattle Monday, the city council voted to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize, a right reserved for employees. Uber drivers in California have filed a class action lawsuit against the company, demanding recognition as employees.

While Uber continues to demonstrate a willingness to go to court in cities all around the world, Bright sees those looking to control Uber finding more success through political negotiations.

"Ultimately, I think Uber is going to be regulated, one way or the other," Bright said.

The regulation of Uber -- or current lack thereof -- interests many parties: from its drivers to various unions, the yellow taxi industry, environmental and disability groups, local governments, and urbanists.

"Any regulation of these ride-sharing companies needs to be thought of critically as potentially limiting innovation and mobility in New York," said Sarah Kaufman, the assistant director of technology programming at the NYU Rudin Center of Transportation. Kaufman worries too strict of regulation might hinder innovation. But she expects Uber and companies like it to face some sort of national set of rules in the future. "Local governments are still grappling with how to regulate Uber," she said.

We can count New York City's leadership among those grapplers. Uber has declined to share with the city its surge-pricing information.

"It indicates where taxis are limited and where taxi service should really be ramped up," Kaufman said.

Such a data set might tell the city how, where and when it might want to restrict Uber's operation, if it needs to do so.

"Any company that adds to the mobility of New Yorkers is great in my book," Kaufman said.

In a statement, an Uber spokeswoman said only that the company was creating new opportunities for many people to earn a better living on their own time and own terms and that many of its drivers drove to supplement another source of income. 

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