Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Is fancy cab service Uber operating illegally? Yes, says D.C.'s taxicab commish

January 11, 2012 - 10:55 AM
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The new service in question. (Photo: Courtesy of Uber)

Scores upon scores of unhappy taxi drivers fill the Old Council Chambers this morning. The concerns are legion — and we'll talk about those soon enough. But first, a fascinating and staggering little exchange just occurred between D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton and one of the drivers at today's 10 a.m. hearing.

One taxicab driver brought up the new service called Uber, the expensive upmarket cab service that positions itself as "everyone's private driver" and a tech-smart alternative to the District's taxis. Trips in D.C. cost riders $15 minimum and sometimes far more. Uber has received much national press and now offers service in several cities across the U.S. I wrote about its arrival in our city back on Dec. 15.

The cab driver was concerned about how Uber was operating and pointed out the starting mileage rate of more than $3.

But this morning, Linton just declared that the fancy new service, now in the District for under two months, is operating illegally.

Illegal? Has this been discussed among D.C. officials and what extent is the District of this opinion and hoping to make any action? Are these contract issues also a relevant and pressing issue in other Uber cities? I can understand how Uber's arrival would be making ripples among the District's drivers. But this comes down to contracts — and apparently their lack of contracts. Linton expanded on the thought.

"They’re operating illegally, and we plan to take steps against them," Linton told the driver in regards to Uber.

The driver was momentarily confused and referred to language about a contract, which was what concerned him. Linton stopped him and asked if he saw that on the District's websites. No, the driver said. Uber's website.

"There is no contract between this city and the Uber operation," Linton remarked. "What they say is not true and they will be dealt with.”

I've asked Uber for comment and assure you that you'll be hearing their thoughts on the matter as soon as I do.

Update, 12:35 p.m.: Uber tells me that the company entered the District in full belief that it complied with all laws, and what's more, had even talked with representatives from the Commission to ensure there wouldn't be any issues.

"We launched in Washington, D.C. last month confident that we are compliant with the rules and regulations with the District," Uber's Rachel Holt told me via e-mail. "Prior to launching we had a conversations with representatives of the Taxi Commission that helped us understand the regulatory landscape and convinced us that the Uber transportation alternative was legal in the city of Washington, D.C."

Yet even as Uber did so, the question of the service's definition, its legality, and the nature of District cab regulations began to peripherally arise. Uber is, ostensibly, a "booking service" for cars through smartphones, according to Slate's Matt Yglesias, and hence able to sidestep the idea that it's a cab. Uber is a cab service that's able to, through sleight of hand, pretend it's not ... and avoid any of our standard cab regulation in the process, at least so far. "What [Uber is] doing," Yglesias wrote last month, "is running a business that would have bleak prospects of success if our nation’s taxi laws were not so dumb."

Today Linton appears to have wised up and is not so happy about the idea of Uber riding free. In turn, Uber has sought clarification from the authorities.

"We have reached out to Ron Linton and the Commission, so that Uber can understand the concern that Linton voiced at the Taxi Commission hearings this morning," Holt told me. "Uber is committed to remaining a useful transportation option for D.C. residents and look forward to hearing out and addressing any concerns from the Commissioner."

Update, 3 p.m.: Not only is Uber reiterating its earlier statements to me on its blog but the company is asking fans of the new transportation option to speak up! Uber has even crafted a Twitter hashtag for Uber advocates to use: #UberDCLove.

"We need your tweets, FB posts, blog posts, and videos to show your support and so that we can put on display the positive impact we’re working to make in D.C.," writes Uber D.C. General Manager Holt.

The battle between the Commission and Uber has escalated a little fast, no? All over the course of four hours or so. I see the virtue of shoring up support, I suppose, but I never imagined the luxury service would be launching its own existential social media campaign to save itself already.

Update, 4 p.m.: The Post's Mike DeBonis adds some useful thoughts and context well worth reviewing. Key details — Linton refutes the idea that Uber met with the Commission, Uber says its meetings were of a lower level than commissioners, and Uber, above all, positions itself firmly as a limo service and not a cab service. But the debate seems like it will continue, especially given the firmness of Linton's statements on Uber. "Question is, if Uber's position is it's running a limo service," DeBonis asks on Twitter, does its use of metering run afoul of limousine regs?"

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