Creative Economy

Vic Christopher’s quest to legalize ridesharing comes to a successful end

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Vic Christopher’s quest to legalize ridesharing comes to a successful end

On a chilly Thursday evening in late March Vic Christopher holds open a door to his dark green Chevy Suburban. A couple who have just frequented Christopher’s Little Pecks pull themselves into the sizeable vehicle. His headlights come alive. They shimmer in the dark, reflected off the piles of dirty snow and cracked ice.

“Fake Uber at your service,” Christopher intones in his Brooklyn accent, a coy smile streaking across his angular face. Earlier this week Christopher teamed with website Two Buttons Deep and PR firm Relentless Awareness to create and share a video promoting his Fake Uber campaign.

Christopher put out the call on his Twitter account where he has nearly 3,000 followers–saying he’d drive customers from downtown Troy to his latest venture Donna’s Italian.

“The snow is still out here on the street. Parking isn’t easy. People don’t want to drive in this weather. It’s hard to get them to come out in this stuff as it is,” Christopher says. “And people from out of town have trouble enough driving in Troy. We have all these one-way streets, people making left turns on red. We need Uber here, it just makes sense.”

The couple who serve as Christopher’s fake fare are from Baltimore and they say they were caught off guard by the fact that ridesharing wasn’t available in upstate New York. “Its embarrassing,” says Christopher.

For the past few years Christopher and fellow restaurateur Matt Baumgartner have made the fight to legalize ridesharing in New York their personal quest. They’ve distributed lawn signs, done countless interviews, attended forums, council meetings and met with legislators. Christopher has battled opponents of ridesharing and specifically Uber which has been the subject of a cavalcade of negative stories about their business practices, safety record, treatment of their employees and just how invasive their app is. The New York Times and Washington Post have run a number of damning stories and editorials about Uber and Lyft’s treatment of employees.

An April 10 piece by the Times’ editorial board titled “The Gig Economy’s False Promise” contains the following passage: “In reality, there is no utopia at companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart and Handy, whose workers are often manipulated into working long hours for low wages while continually chasing the next ride or task. These companies have discovered they can harness advances in software and behavioral sciences to old-fashioned worker exploitation, according to a growing body of evidence, because employees lack the basic protections of American law.”

Christopher has been brash, unapologetic and confrontational on Twitter when confronted by opponents of ride sharing on social media. Faced by a press release put forward by anti-Uber groups accusing him of wanting Uber drivers replaced by robots, thereby doing away with the need for drivers and perhaps limiting the number of jobs opportunities made available, Christopher joked about Transformers–posting pictures of the Autobots and Decepticons that had driven him to various Troy locations.

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When this publication ran an op-ed piece opposed to ridesharing Christopher took to Twitter to mock it–downplaying concerns raised about whether Uber drivers are paid well enough. Christopher was welcomed to pen his own op-ed. He agreed but then mocked the idea.

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Riding with Christopher on in his Suburban it is clear his support and passion for ridesharing comes from his deep belief that it only makes sense to have it for both him and his customers. Anything else is tangential and a waste of time. I ask him about a recent report that Uber was using technology to avoid police in areas where it isn’t supposed to be operating. “I think that’s cool! They are so ahead of everyone else that no one knows if what they’re doing is legal or not. They’re innovators!”

We drop the couple at Donna’s Italian. There’s no place to park–snow still consumes the sides of most of 14th Street. “People don’t want to deal with this,” says Christopher.” He hops out of the Suburban and opens the doors for his fare. “Fake Uber at your service,” he says as he escorts the pair inside. Then Christopher is back to talking a mile a minute, dictating texts into his phone. We swing by The Bradley on 4th St. It’s a slow night for Fake Uber. Work is still being done tonight on The Bradley but Christopher details his vision for the rebirth of the dive bar. “I just can’t wait to see it finished,” he says. “I’m always in until it’s done. I have this drive to see things through.” He says that drive is what has informed his obsession with legalizing ride sharing.

Christopher presented the Troy City Council in March with a study he commissioned on the economic benefits of ridesharing.

“For the purpose of this projection, we have created dining and shopping revenue estimates based on inbound car drop-offs (non-Troy residents).

We determined the following daily average number of cars transporting customers, based on estimates from downtown business owners:

                Weekday

Inbound Drop-offs

Daily revenue

Sunday

65

$6,500

Monday

65

$6,500

Tuesday

80

$8,000

Wednesday

95

$9,500

Thursday

115

$11,500

Friday

200

$20,000

Saturday

200

$20,000

TOTAL

117
(Daily average)

$82,000 (Weekly total)

Based on these numbers, yearly spending could bring in an additional $4,592,000 revenue to city businesses.

With an 8 percent county sales tax (estimated at $367,360), ridesharing could net approximately $40,000 to the general fund, annually.”

Christopher describes how in 2016 he was sure the state legislature was going to legalize ridesharing at the end of session. “It felt like we were there and then it just didn’t happen and no one could say why. Was it special interests? I don’t know.”

Christopher frets that the taxi industry will win the debate this year and the legislature will pass a bill that requires costly regulations and that makes it financially unreasonable for drivers to work for Uber or Lyft.

Asked what his plans are if ridesharing should pass this year without the regulations he opposes Christopher doesn’t smile. He takes on a more frank and serious demeanor than he’s had all evening. “Look, this is something we should already have. Every other place in the country has this. Am I going to celebrate because the legislature finally did it’s job? No. I’m not gonna be up there spiking the football.”

I talk to Christopher again by phone on April 10. Just the night before, the State Senate had passed the final budget bills that contained language operating ridesharing to operate upstate. The preceding weeks were characterized by chaos in the legislature–false starts on budget deals, things being added and then yanked out. The fate of ridesharing seemed uncertain at best.

“The sun is out, the sky is blue and we’re moving forward today,” Christopher says. “I feel good. We did it. This is going to be big for the local economy, for small businesses. We aren’t the odd man out on ride sharing. I was skeptical after last session with all the false positives and thinking it was going to pass up until the last day of session but I think we had enough public attention this time. They had to do it,” he says referencing the state legislature.

The bill that finally passes will allow ridesharing services to start operating in upstate New York in 90 days. The Department of Motor Vehicles will oversee the industry. Drivers will undergo background checks and localities with 100,000 or more residents will be able to ban ridesharing. The state will form a panel to investigate accessibility in the ridesharing industry as both Uber and Lyft have been criticized for not serving the disabled.

Another panel will review the entire industry.

I ask Christopher if he plans to celebrate. Will there be a discount for customers  who arrive at his business via real Uber come July? “I called Matt Baumgartner on Friday night when it was clear this was going to be in the budget and pass,” Christopher says. “I said let’s get an Uber and eat and drink at each other’s restaurants to kick it all off. It’s going to be great.”

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