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How Uber uses free rides as a lobbying tool

Door-to-door service for the influential

Uber's rapid rise has spawned one of America’s most heated urban policy debates. In cities across the country, the company has been battling regulators seeking to rein it in, and it has enlisted a formidable army of lobbyists that has begun to rival some of the largest and most politically influential corporations. Uber has supplemented its more traditional lobbying tactics with the creative use of its customer base, which it mobilizes to pressure officials who seek regulations that the company opposes.

Uber has also made extensive political use of its arguably largest asset: its own drivers. Just last month, for instance, Uber held a demonstration at New York’s City Hall to protest a proposal to curb the company’s expansion in New York. To bolster the pro-Uber crowd, the company provided free rides to Uber customers seeking to attend the demonstration. Last week, after an aggressive PR blitz that framed the city bureaucracy as beholden to its politically entrenched taxi industry, Uber prevailed in its fight with City Hall, when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio backed down in his attempt to limit the company’s expansion. And last Friday, during an anti-Uber strike held by drivers of traditional cabs in Rio de Janeiro, Uber upstaged its opposition by offering free rides to customers in the city.

Uber has also made extensive political use of its own drivers

It also appears that, if you’re a politician or leading policy wonk about to address a crowd of civic leaders, you might become the beneficiary of free Uber rides as well. In March of last year, while the company was fighting cities on multiple fronts, Uber helped sponsor an urban policy summit in Denver that hundreds of civic leaders, policy experts, and business figures would attend. According to email correspondence obtained by The Verge, Uber’s sponsorship included offering free rides to some of the event’s influential speakers, which included Albuquerque’s mayor, The Creative City author Charles Landry, former Brookings Institution urban policy expert Jennifer Bradley, and political theorist Benjamin Barber. The emails describing the arrangement were sent by an employee of the Denver Downtown Partnership, the business association that organized the Rocky Mountain CitySummit and secured the free rides for its keynote speakers through Uber's sponsorship of the event.

In assisting the keynoters, Uber seems to have gone beyond merely dispensing free rides. In two emails regarding the comped rides, a planner for the summit provides the select participants with a direct line of contact to an Uber manager in case they "run into any issues." The travelers were provided the name, telephone number, and email address of an employee identified on LinkedIn as an "operations and logistics manager" at Uber.

A direct line of contact to an Uber manager

Uber has been fighting legal battles against drivers who argue that the company has misclassified their employment status; the drivers argue that they should be counted as Uber employees rather than independent contractors, as Uber asserts they are. Classifying drivers as freelancers lets Uber off the hook for paying its drivers things like workers' compensation for job-related injuries and reimbursement for expenses like gas and maintenance fees.

In the emails, the event planner says to report problems with the ride-hailing service not to the freelance drivers (who are supposed to be their own bosses), but instead to staff management at Uber. This appears to be a departure for a company that generally positions itself as simply a platform for connecting independent drivers with their customers.

In response to questions from The Verge, Uber emphasized that partnerships like that with CitySummit are a common part of its outreach. "We partner with thousands of events around the country to help spread the word about Uber to new potential riders and support the local community," said Jennifer Mullin, a spokesperson for the company, in an email. "Whether for major festivals like Lollapalooza and the Houston Beer Fest or civic events like Fargo tedX and the Rocky Mountain CitySummit, event organizers allocate the Uber passes as they see fit and in compliance with local and state law."

Uber provided a list of links to sites referring to other instances in which it has dispensed free rides. According to the LA Times, Uber has sponsored several events hosted by the United States Conference of Mayors, which told The Verge that free rides were not included in those sponsorships.

"Uber Denver has been an incredible community partner."

The Downtown Denver Partnership, the group that hosted the CitySummit, confirmed that Uber’s sponsorship included free rides for the 2014 event's keynote speakers and says that the company has been a valuable participant in efforts to improve the region. "Uber Denver has been an incredible community partner," Brittany Morris Saunders, senior vice president of economic development and public affairs at the organization, said in an email, "and their investment in the Rocky Mountain CitySummit shows their commitment to building our city and strengthening our region."

Over email, one event attendee confirmed having taken a free Uber ride, while two of those who were offered free rides told The Verge they do not recall having taken them. Barber, a political theorist at the City University of New York, is the author of If Mayors Ruled the World, which argues that dysfunction with national governance and the increasing importance of cities has created a new urgency for local control and inter-city political coordination. Barber did not recall whether he used Uber in Denver, but mentioned that he is no fan of the service or its effects on local economies. Jennifer Bradley, the former Brookings Institution policy expert who is now the founding director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute, said that she has seen Uber sponsor other events "with free or discounted rides available, especially to and from airports." Bradley says she does not recall having used Uber for the event.

A news station aired a segment on Berry’s efforts to bring Uber to Albuquerque

Another name that shows up on the free ride list is Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque, an outspoken supporter of Uber’s expansion and critic of state regulations on the ride-hailing service. A day after the Denver summit, a local news station aired a segment on Berry’s efforts to bring Uber to Albuquerque, and Berry has since assailed state regulators’ attempts to place Uber under regulations that apply to traditional cab companies.

The emails, obtained through a public records request, show Berry’s exuberant embrace of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. At one point, while helping to generate local coverage of his attempts to bring the services to Albuquerque, Berry’s staff actively pressed Lyft for a media interview. Berry’s team also apparently sent local press a list of pro-Uber and Lyft talking points.

An email sent to Berry by a CitySummit organizer after the event thanked him for his participation and included one attachment: a certificate for $20 dollars off a first-customer Uber ride. "CitySummit Attendees," the certificate said, "your Uber is arriving now."