The fight to bring ride-sharing services to Birmingham may be reaching a tipping point. Around this same time last year, Uber caused a ruckus when it called out the Birmingham City Council — and Councilor Kim Rafferty in particular — in an email blast targeting the region.
“Councilor Kim Rafferty, chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, is making Uber’s entry into the city near impossible,” Uber wrote, detailing an ordinance Rafferty proposed that was “effectively shutting out Uber from Birmingham.” That email set off a firestorm on social media that, while it has ebbed and flowed since, has endured among online activists.
In the meantime, Uber has set up shop in nearby Tuscaloosa, as well as along the Gulf Coast. Rafferty apparently didn’t get the memo that public opinion was not on her side. Just this month she said about the Uber kerfuffle that she had been:
“...unfairly and libelously attacked by a $40 billion bully and the minions.”
Last weekend, Birmingham hosted the inaugural Sloss Music and Arts Festival featuring acts like homegrown St. Paul & the Broken Bones, indie rock favorites Modest Mouse, hip-hop star Tyler, the Creator, and international folk superstars The Avett Brothers, among others. The two-day event brought thousands of revelers to the historic Sloss Furnaces near downtown Birmingham all weekend — with many feeling frustrated at the city’s lack of viable transportation options.
Madison Underwood, a reporter for the Birmingham News, captured the dissatisfaction in a report this week highlighting how guests used social media to vent:
“But outside the gates of Sloss Fest, it was difficult to avoid the clamoring on social media for transportation options...Many guests found it difficult to get to or from Sloss at all, or on time. Others wondered why Birmingham does not offer an app-based ride-share solution, such as Uber or Lyft.”
One anonymous Twitter user highlighted by Underwood, @GamecockColonel, wrote what can only be described as an essay-by-tweet synopsis of his experiences. Though unrelated to Sloss Fest, the tweets were seemingly prompted by the clamoring it created. Here are a few highlights:
A Facebook page has been created by some anxious Alabamians hoping to put pressure on Birmingham's City Council to reconsider the 2014 ordinance that Uber claims prevents it from operating in the city. They also established a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for “lobbying, PR, and marketing.”
The page’s organizers say that the lack of ride-sharing services reflects negatively on the Magic City. “People that visit Birmingham expect to just open the Uber or Lyft app and get a ride on demand,” the GoFundMe page says.
It’s unclear why a group of citizens would organize a fundraising campaign to support companies like Uber and Lyft that have already spent millions of dollars across the globe on lobbying and public relations efforts. Nonetheless, they have raised more than $4,000 of their $10,000 goal. I reached out to the group via Facebook and this is what they had to say:
Thousands of Birmingham residents have joined together to voice their frustration and business leaders have committed thousands in funding to help with this effort. We are still getting up to speed with the city council and past political platforms at this point. I will leave it up to you to research Councilwoman Kim Rafferty and her connections with the Birmingham taxi systems....
If Birmingham tries to set restrictions on their models they will not launch here, as we’ve experienced since last summer. These ride hailing entities, such as Uber and Lyft, are successful and strong solutions for hundreds of other cities, large and small, across the U.S. What makes Birmingham any different? Why cannot our city be on board to help move Birmingham forward to keep up with the demands and to fill the transportation voids in our communities?
For our city to continue to bring new jobs, new developments, new events, new visitors and thus new growth then ride hailing services are a requirement.
It’s clear that Birminghamians remain unhappy with their city’s leadership. On Thursday, Art Carden, an economics professor at Samford University, wrote a scathing op-ed criticizing the city’s taxi problems. He mentioned many of the same critiques that have been leveled against the city’s transportation system (cabs in particular) since the uproar began in the summer of 2014.
But one simple sentence stands out as the most important and most effective argument for opening Birmingham up for app-based ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft:
“Resistance to innovation hurts the Birmingham brand.”
If those seven words don’t get the attention of Kim Rafferty and the rest of the Birmingham City Council, what will?