Lyft Takes Its Contractor Campaign to Illinois

And Columbus extends a free-transit program that boosted ridership and more in this week's The Mobile City.

(Photo by Alfredo Mendez / CC BY 2.0)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

One of the hot labor issues of the moment is whether workers in the “gig economy” actually function more like employees and thus deserve the same benefits and protections employees enjoy. Voters in California recently approved a ballot question that changed that state’s answer from “Yes” to “No” by overturning a state law that classified workers for ride-hailing companies and delivery services as employees instead of independent contractors. Fresh off its success on the Proposition 22 campaign, one of the two big ride-hailing companies, Lyft, is now working to head off a similar attempt to make their drivers employees in the eyes of the law in Illinois.

Meanwhile, on the transit side, the drive to make public transit free continues to gather steam. One city — Columbus, Ohio — has found a limited free-transit program launched two years ago so successful that it’s extended the program for five more years.

And where COVID has kept riders off the buses, some transit agencies have found other ways to put those empty seats in service to the community. In Tulsa, the city’s transit system has delivered so many meals to homebound seniors that the local Meals on Wheels agency has given it an award for its community service.

Ride-Hailing Companies Seek to Forestall Gig-Worker Protections in Illinois

Now that California voters have proved the effectiveness of the media campaign Uber and Lyft launched featuring drivers touting the freedom their status as independent contractors offered by approving Proposition 22, one of the two big ride-hailing companies has turned its attention to Illinois, where the state legislature is considering laws identical in effect to the California laws Prop 22 overturned.

Both Crain’s Chicago Business and Streetsblog Chicago report that Lyft is ramping up spending to sway legislators against the proposed laws. (As Illinois does not allow voter-initiated laws or referenda, their only chance to derail the legislation lies in the legislature itself.) According to both sources, Lyft has formed a SuperPAC called Illinoisians for Independent Work, donating $1.2 million to the committee through June 30. Crain’s reports that the committee spent nearly $500,000 on mailings and digital media buys on behalf of 11 State House candidates running for election this year. Lyft also donated $133,000 directly to 50 state legislators of both parties as well as more than 12 Chicago aldermen.

One beneficiary of Lyft’s largesse, State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, expressed surprise at receiving the money. “It came out of the blue,” a spokeswoman for Howard told Crain’s. “Terra is a strong union supporter. We were quite surprised. Terra believes employees should get health care, unemployment and retirement benefits.”

As Streetsblog’s report notes, “It’s hard to argue that ride-hail drivers are freelancers, when the only thing they get to control is whether or not they want to work on any given day. Pricing, not knowing where their next passenger is headed, and other rules are all set by the TNC company, not the driver. The same goes for people delivering for the myriad food apps like Grubhub and Postmates, as well as Instacart for groceries.” And indeed, the California Supreme Court agreed when it ruled against a delivery company in that state that sought to exempt its delivery drivers from employee protections. But, as Crain’s notes, providing the protections and benefits would likely put these companies out of business, which explains their massive spending ($200 million in California, the most ever spent on a ballot proposition there) to avoid having to provide them.

Columbus Transit Authority OKs 4-Year Eztension of Free Pass Program

Since 2018, people who live or work in downtown Columbus have been able to get around the city for free on its bus system thanks to a program launched by downtown property owners called C-Pass. The program, which distributes passes for free to workers and downtown residents, has proven so successful that the Central Ohio Transportation Authority (COTA) has renewed it through the end of 2025.

Intelligent Transport reports that the program, which is jointly sponsored by COTA, the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District (CCSID) and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), caused the number of workers who use transit to get to their jobs downtown to double. And COTA credits the program for contributing to a 31-year high in ridership in 2019. Right now, while COTA has suspended fare collection on all its routes in response to the COVID pandemic, the pass program is suspended, but the free passes will resume once fares are collected again.

More than 15,000 downtown Columbus workers and residents participate in the program.

“Downtown C-pass has proven to be a successful program that reduces car trips into downtown and eases the scarcity of parking,” Marc Conte, acting executive director for CCSID, told Intelligent Transport. “This supports our property owners’ efforts to lease more space while providing employers with a valuable recruitment and retention tool.”

The move is also a bet on the viability of downtown Columbus as a place to work and live once the pandemic passes.

Meals on Wheels Applauds Tulsa Transit Agency

As COVID restrictions and advisories have kept more senior citizens at home since the first lockdowns took effect in March, demand for paratransit and shuttle-van services older and disabled riders use has fallen even more sharply than overall transit ridership. This means that fleets of transit vans now sit idle. The transit system in Tulsa, Okla., has found a way to put those vans to work, and the agency that furnishes hot meals to seniors has given it an award for its efforts.

KJRH and KOTV in Tulsa both reported on Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa’s presentation of a Community Service Award to Tulsa Transit at its “Community Celebration” event on Nov. 17. Tulsa Transit lift van operators began transitioning to meal delivery in April, and since that time have delivered nearly 43,000 meals to residents of Tulsa and environs. In addition, Tulsa Transit call center employees have made 2,900 check-up calls to Meals on Wheels recipients.

“We are so grateful that Tulsa Transit and our partners are able to provide this service to our community and help during this time of need,” Ted Rieck, general manager of Tulsa Transit, told KOTV. “All of our employees, contract employees and our call center played a vital role in making this happen and we’re happy to be a part of it.”

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: public transportationbusesride-hailinglyftcolumbustulsagig economy

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