A crackdown in Los Angeles that included threats of arrest, car impoundings, and thousand-dollar fines made it a tough week to be an Uber or Lyft driver. But in San Francisco, there's a (dubious) silver lining. Rideshare services just garnered a rousing endorsement from one of their fiercest sworn enemies: Muni.
It turns out the SFMTA, which has publicly objected to the new car-hire apps in ongoing proceedings before the California Public Utilities Commission, is now running uberX ads on Muni buses. This morning local blogger SF Citizen posted photographs of the gleaming placards, which promoted a "better, faster, and cheaper" service than SFMTA's regular taxis.
So who gave the greenlight on that one?
According to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose, the agency doesn't get to decide which ads run on its own vessels -- that's all up to the ad vendor, Titan Outdoor. And in this case, Titan Outdoor had the odd -- or perhaps even-handed -- idea to juxtapose anti-SFMTA ads with pro-SFMTA ads. Another bus-side billboard, also captured by SF Citizen, promoted city-run taxis by smearing Uber's digital dispatch service. Placing a taxi light next to a picture of a black town car, it ordered consumers to "Know what you're getting into."
Spokespeople for Titan couldn't be reached for comment, but a quick glance at SFMTA's ad policy showed that while it prohibits firearms, alcohol, tobacco, copyright infringement, deceptive language, incitement of violent action, or promotion of a political candidate or ballot measure, it doesn't allow staff members to intervene in the content. In fact, every Muni ad comes with the disclaimer that it doesn't necessarily reflect the views of SFMTA (remember the Jihad bus ads?).
Both ads appear to be King Size posters, which cost $940 per bus, per month, according to Titan. That means Uber -- which appears to not be suffering for lack of cash -- deems Muni a worthy piece of real estate for its new public image campaign. Long considered a luxury brand, the company is trying to recast itself as a cheap alternative to conventional taxis. On June 11, Uber announced new, cutthroat rates for its uberX rideshare service, which it had slashed to 10 percent lower than regular taxis. Although industry observers speculated that Uber launched its rideshare service to stave off competition from SideCar and Lyft, it's now clear that taxis were the real threat.
An Uber spokesman declined to calculate how much that threat was worth in advertising dollars, but Rose said the company already sunk $18,375 into the Muni campaign, running 35 ads from June 17 to July 14.
And SFMTA's counter-attack suggests it might be feeling a little intimidated, too. The budget-strapped agency evidently spent resources of its own to browbeat a private company.
Rose said all the ads were made in-house, which suggests they didn't actually drain Muni's taxpayer-funded coffers. The agency also contended that despite the provocative black car photo, they weren't meant to target any specific company. Rather, the SFMTA wanted to promote its own taxi fleet as "a safe and accesible transportation option."
Good thing walking is still free.