Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. Uber superfans hope to save pricey car service, crucify Ron Linton

January 13, 2012 - 02:29 PM
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(Photo: Courtesy of Uber)

Say what you will about Uber, its customer service, or its legality, but the luxury car service, available in D.C. for the past month, has a freakily passionate set of fans. This week, the D.C.Taxicab Commissioner called Uber's operations "illegal" and said the company "will be dealt with." Uber has, Linton alleges, failed to comply with government regulations that would be appropriate for the service. This morning, Mike DeBonis and DCist share accounts of Commissioner Ron Linton's sting operation against an Uber driver who now faces more than $1,000 in tickets.

Mere hours after Linton first questioned Uber's legality, Uber's D.C. team pivoted into a full-throated defense of its services by asking fans to share their love. They also gave birth to a hashtag: #UberDCLove.

Scores have responded with outrage and sympathy for the luxury car service, which costs a minimum of $15 a trip and often more. The level of response and depth of passion amazes me. Why do people love Uber? One Uber rider told me that customer service is a "lost art" and that it's refreshing to see a company offer a classy, truly enjoyable riding experience. Others point, angrily, to how this customer service contrasts with D.C.'s taxi companies, which they slam as rude and antiquated.

But who are these vocal Uber riders, so passionate after the service's month-old introduction? Uber's real defenders comprise a mix of socialites, transportation fanatics, and libertarians.

The socialites of D.C. are particularly frustrated to realize their new luxury car service may disappear, and today one even committed what I would consider an unacceptable sin. Shana Glickfield, the woman known as @DCConcierge on Twitter, has posted  Commissioner Linton's personal cell phone number. "Ok, now we have Linton's phone #," Glickfield tweeted earlier today. "DC needs to let him know we LOVE @Uber_DC!!" Another suggested spamming his Twitter account.

Despite today's stunt, to post the man's cell seems rather low, doesn't it? Perhaps that's fair punishment for Linton singling out one unlucky Uber driver with hundred upon hundred of dollars in tickets though.

Other voices cry just as loud about the perceived injustice of Linton. Radio host Tommy McFly lent his support:

Riding with a cab driver who just yelled at me for 'going the wrong way to my house.' MY HOUSE! never have that prob w/@uber_dc#uberDCLove
Jan 13 via Twitter for AndroidFavoriteRetweetReply

A social life, for many of these individuals, requires a certain fashion and level of class that D.C. cabs apparently can't quite match. This speaks to the customer service argument but in much more pointed way.

Uber, after all, is "everyone's private driver," as its tagline proclaims. 

Marissa Schneider of Gilt City D.C. notes that anything less than Uber feels "ghetto," a sentiment that the blogger behind Capitol Hill Style agrees with:

I concur. RT @stylememarissa: Anything other than an @Uber_DC car feels ghetto. #nevergoingback
Jan 12 via HootSuiteFavoriteRetweetReply

I can understand the appeal of Uber to society types, but what I find truly interesting is the veracity that many civic-minded, transportation-obsessed individuals bring to the service. On some levels, I absolutely do agree with them. Uber is a smart company, with good branding and the technology that any modern service, whether taxi or limo, needs. People can book an Uber on their smartphone. They can pay with a credit card. They can feel good about their chosen (if pricey) mode of transportation, and that's a necessary thing, especially in a city like D.C., full of power-mad, ambitious people who often have money to spare. All our car services should feature that fundamental, 21st-century technology, and the D.C. government has tried to push the cab industry in that direction.

At Greater Greater Washington, Erik Weber offers a spirited defense of the new car service:

To say that Uber competes with cabs is like saying McDonalds competes with Bourbon Steak because they both serve hamburgers.

The concept is a positive step for an urban DC. It offers yet another transportation option besides driving a personal car. Transit isn't for everyone all the time, and if Uber lets a transit skeptic leave the car at home or get rid of it altogether, it's a big win.

I agree with Weber in his bigger point. The more options, the better, assuming the appropriate conversations happen between D.C. and the car service. Many D.C. residents, bloggers, and even national media have begun to see this as a question of bogus government intervention that's hurting our transportation market and the strong demand for a service like Uber.

Consider what TechCrunch wrote about our "crusty local bureaucracy":

Uber had tried to get approval for a service that uses GPS and mobile technology to provide low-end luxury car transportation, something that no one else is doing. But the license for such a service doesn’t exist, because the commission only offers ones for taxis and limos. So the commission would have to create a new license in order to be able to offer it to Uber. But now, the guy who is in charge of things like licenses is promising to punish Uber because it doesn’t have a…

Point Uber, at least in the broader PR war that's being waged. I've seen that narrative repeated elsewhere. The idea is that excessive regulation is stifling innovation, which on the surface may appear true. On Twitter, We Love D.C. said Mayor Vince Gray appears "anti-entrepreneur" and Paul Klein, general manager of E Street Cinema, announced to his followers that, "I will never spend my District money in a #taxicab again. Goodbye, tax revenue. #UberDCLove." Such strong emotions from all involved!

Yet the local opinion among media isn't always so settled. DCist editor-in-chief Martin Austermuhle lent a thought on Twitter I'm inclined to agree with: "I'm torn on Uber sting," Austermuhle wrote. "While the act itself was goofy, if the company isn't in compliance with D.C. law, someone has to say so."

Correct. Has Uber really done its due diligence in entering the D.C. market? Uber should, I believe, be and stay in D.C. but it needs to do so in the right way. Atlantic Cities' Sommer Mathis voices a similar concern with how Uber prices its trips. The service books rides, yes, but "[Uber also] charges based on time and distance, not on a fixed rate basis, and there's some evidence that D.C. laws may actually prohibit that part of the deal," she writes. These details need to be worked out. The company has said it wants to talk to Linton and said it had low-level meetings initially. Linton has disputed the account and is now holding stings against the car service.

But as those formal details get worked out, the Uber superfans will continue to scream bloody murder about the D.C. Taxicab Commission and today's sting. But will that passion be enough to save the company from stunts and a potential shutdown?

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