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Economy & Business

Flexible Income Opportunity Helps Cities Warm To Uber, Study Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Our next guest is no stranger to Washington, D.C. David Plouffe managed both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. Since leaving the White House, Plouffe has signed on with a new employer - the ride-sharing service Uber. This week, he is back in D.C. lobbying a group that is key to Uber's business - the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Since launching five years ago, Uber has become a worldwide company worth $40 billion, operating from San Francisco to St. Petersburg. Yesterday, it released a Harvard study on its drivers. A third once drove limos or taxis, but most are driving part-time to supplement their incomes from other jobs. David Plouffe joined us for more. Good morning. Welcome to the program.

DAVID PLOUFFE: Good morning, Renee. Thank you so much for having me on.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we start with Uber's phenomenal growth due to innovations that offer enormous convenience? I mean, you summon Uber on your app. The car is there in just a few minutes. You watch its progress as it comes to you. But it has become quite controversial because it is a mostly unregulated challenge to established city taxi services. Now, you're here talking to mayors. What kinds of feedback or pushback are you getting?

PLOUFFE: Well, what's interesting, a year ago, there was no city or state in the U.S. who had passed modern ride-sharing regulations. And now, just in the last few months, 22 have. And as you know, we released a driver study yesterday that, I think, is part of the reason that so many cities are embracing Uber and services like it because it provides a flexible income opportunity for thousands of people. Here in Washington, there's over 11,000 active people driving on the Uber platform.

So I think what mayors are seeing is it's a lot of jobs. It is something that helps small businesses and the general economy. It's safe. It helps reduce DUIs and distracted driving. There's really nothing like it in our economy on this scale, so that's one of the reasons, I think, so many mayors and officials are starting to embrace it.

MONTAGNE: So are you saying that is your experience, how they actually are?

PLOUFFE: Oh, yeah. I think in the beginning it was, well, what is this? And now, I think people see OK, how can we make sure that we provide the opportunity for these drivers to make a living, an income to provide this service, which really improves the transportation system in a city? And I think in the beginning, it was viewed as a sort of zero-sum game between taxi and Uber and some of our competitors. And I think what you see is these things can coexist. What happens is the overall transportation pie grows. And so underserved areas are better served where it might have been hard to get a taxi. People who might not have wanted to just go out and hail a taxi down the street, they can just press a smartphone - like they do for everything else - they bank, they get news. And so I think it's an alternative in these cities, but an important one.

MONTAGNE: Let me just put something to you, though, on the question of insurance. Some insurance companies have already come out and said they won't cover a car that's being used for commercial ride-sharing, a private car. So no matter how much insurance Uber puts forward or promises, are these insurance companies going to honor this if something does happen to one of these people who is basically using their own car?

PLOUFFE: Well, you know, obviously, our drivers have personal insurance. Those that are doing Black Car have commercial. But we have a policy on top of that. I also think it's very interesting that two major insurers last week - Farmers and USAA - introduced ride-sharing-specific insurance policies in Colorado, and we'd expect to see that continue. The market's growing in such a large and profound way. I think you're going to continue to see new products out there in the insurance space that meet this need.

MONTAGNE: David Plouffe, I have one thing that fascinates me. You were deeply involved for many years in a White House and a president that favored regulations to protect workers, consumers, small businesses. Yet with Uber, you are representing something of the opposite - a business that seems to thrive on as little overt regulation as possible. How do you square those two positions?

PLOUFFE: Well, I think that is a complete misnomer because 22 different municipalities have passed ride-sharing regulations, and we are at the table there. We are in favor of smart modern regulations that enshrine in law things like background check standards, insurance standards, vehicle inspections. So we are hungry for that.

I will say, Renee, when I was at the White House, I was actively involved in something called a look-back, where we looked across the government - a look back at regulations. And, you know, we found dozens of them - more than that. That served no purpose. They did at the time, but they were outdated. So I think that's what you find is a lot of these transportation regulations do not serve the moment we're in. But we are actively working with regulators, with local officials, to find a way forward.

MONTAGNE: David Plouffe, thank you very much.

PLOUFFE: Thanks, Renee.

GREENE: That was Renee Montagne talking to David Plouffe, who is senior vice president for planning and strategy for the ride-sharing service Uber. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.