Dr. Kafui Attoh sparks conversation on “Uber, Public Transit and the Idiocy of the Smart City”

BY LIZ LEWIS ’22

In the digital age, many aspects of daily life are consistently being updated, remodeled and improved, often for the sake of increasing a person’s options. Transportation has transformed rapidly in both nature and scope over the last few decades. As companies like Uber and Lyft grow, the health of public transportation may fall further into jeopardy. 

In his lecture “Uber, Public Transit and the Idiocy of the Smart City,” which focused specifically on Washington, D.C., Dr. Kafui Attoh discussed how cities often “uncritically embrace technological innovation” and the “sharing economy” to the detriment of their “well-being and the interests of their working class and most vulnerable residents.” Attoh is an assistant professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies’ Department of Urban Studies. The presentation on Feb. 14, sponsored by the Mount Holyoke departments of geography, Africana studies and politics, had room 101 of Dwight Hall packed with students, professors and community members. 

“I was intrigued by the title, which made [the event] seem really interesting,” said Holly Hanson, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke. “And it’s Black history month!” 

In early 2017, Uber launched Uber Movement, an initiative that involved the company aggregating the data from all of their transactions to collaborate with public officials to build “smarter” cities. The data they collect — including travel times and speeds — will also be available to any member of the public who wishes to access them. According to Uber Movement’s Frequently Asked Questions page, the “aggregated data will inform decisions about how to adapt existing infrastructure and invest in future solutions to make our cities more efficient.” 

Attoh explained that this development is representative of a larger trend that ultimately warps the complex relationship between transportation and social politics. As he sees it, Uber stands to gain from making cities smarter. 

Throughout the presentation, Attoh used the word “idiocy” not as a synonym for stupidity, but as ancient Greeks used it — to mean “isolating and apolitical.” An idiot, in Attoh’s usage, is someone private, secluded and disconnected from his neighbors and peers. Attoh argued that cities, especially in the direction they’re headed, threaten to “make idiots out of us all.” To him, smart cities can be “profoundly idiotic” and “nowhere is this more apparent than in Washington, D.C.,” he said. 

Uber arrived in D.C. in 2011 as a modified black car service, enabling people to contact local, already licensed drivers via the app. Their operation in D.C. began illegally and quickly came under fire in a sting operation involving D.C.’s then-Taxi Head of Service, the late Ron Linton. The introduction of UberX changed the conversation by allowing anyone to turn their vehicle into a cab via “ride sharing.”

 In 2014, D.C. passed the Vehicle for Hire Innovation Amendment Act, which provided new regulations for programs like Uber. It included updated tax policies for Uber receipts as well as “background checks and insurance requirements for drivers.” These new legislations allowed UberX to “continue to operate in D.C. without really changing much,” said Attoh. “It was a big win for the company.” D.C. has largely worked around Uber, aiming to accommodate rather than control it. Today, D.C. is moving towards becoming a smart city as defined by Uber rather than as defined by the city itself. 

According to Attoh, The Smarter D.C. Initiative defines a smart city as one that “leverages intelligent city infrastructure, including connected divides, sensors and data analytics to improve quality of life for residents, enhance economic growth and address city challenges.” In Attoh’s view, the 2014 Vehicle for Hire Innovation Amendment Act placed “explicit limitations on [D.C.’s] own use of data” by permitting Uber to define its own data transactions with the city, potentially allowing for critical gaps in information. According to Attoh, it is now “virtually impossible to tell how many Ubers are operating at any given time,” or “how much pressure Ubers put on the city’s crumbling infrastructure...both of which may [be crucial to future city planning],” because Uber doesn’t want this information to be part of the transaction. 

Attoh suggested to the crowd that “we may be thinking about Uber all wrong: Maybe it’s less a transportation company [than it is] a big data company with a transportation wing. It’s not valued simply in providing trips, but providing data on a city.” Despite its popularity, Uber’s financial health is still unclear, as according to Attoh, customers only pay about 41 percent of the true cost of a ride. But some economists believe that the company has yet to turn a profit, suggesting that the data they collect has both value and a market. 

“Perhaps Uber knows that I live in New York and travel once in a while to D.C., and when I do travel to D.C., it knows where I like to stay,” said Attoh. “Perhaps in the same way Facebook knows [my interests for the sake of advertisements], Uber may know when I need to book my monthly endocrinologist appointment.” Regardless, he suspects that Uber views cities as “less a partner than a potential customer.” 

Attoh interviewed D.C.-area Uber drivers as part of a study conducted with other researchers about the company’s incentivization techniques directed at their workers. Some drivers would chase “surges” in customer activity during specific hours of the day on specific days of the week to pick up as many passengers in a time period as possible to reach the “platinum” status defined by the company. In Attoh’s analysis, Uber’s incentives intend to keep as many Ubers on the road as possible to increase competition between drivers. Two apps have been recently circulating among Uber drivers, the first notifying drivers of “surge blooms,” the second identifying potential passengers. 

Attoh also pointed out that these policies create antagonism not only between drivers, but between Uber affiliates and the city’s public transit system. “I like when metro doesn’t work,” said Desiree, one of the D.C. Uber drivers interviewed in the study. “It’s how I make my money.” When public transit succeeds in its job, Uber is likely to suffer, and conversely, any failure of public transit is a success for Uber. “Uber is committed to a model of a smart city in which the data cities need are produced under the conditions where [...] the pay is generally poor [...] and any sense of collective strategy is undermined,” said Attoh. “The strategies Uber uses to keep drivers on the road [...] alienate them from the very data we produce.” 

According to Attoh, public transit is essential to the nature of a city’s racial and social politics. He illustrated this by pointing out the common media trope of “a guy who’s down on his luck, car totaled [...] who [has to walk] to work [until] some upstanding citizen starts a kickstarter and the whole community chips in to buy him a car.” Attoh argued that people should be wary of any legislation that undermines public transit systems in favor of private ones, particularly if they collect customer data. 

He concluded by encouraging people to consider the future of smart cities and to “think critically about where [their] data goes and why.” The information Uber currently collects may play an instrumental role in the future of cities. “People keep talking about driverless cars, which I still think are way far off,” he said. “But honestly if you look at it, we’re building their data [right now]….[so] whose [data] is it?” To Attoh, a smart city should be collaborative and dynamic and should always strive to support its residents of all abilities and backgrounds. However, Uber’s ideal view of the smart city, as Attoh sees it, “means that smart cities will be idiotic...in both senses of the word.” 

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