Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

'Kojo' brings Taxicab Commissioner Linton and Uber together

January 17, 2012 - 12:58 PM
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(Photo: Courtesy of The Kojo Show)

Last Friday at close of business, Uber and the D.C. Taxicab Commission hadn't talked to each other once, despite two days of very public tension over accusations that Uber is operating illegally. An Uber car was even impounded and the driver fined extraordinary amounts of money on Friday morning.

How hadn't the two forces talked? I was baffled and talked to both sides trying to figure out why.

In the confusing limbo of the last few days, the debate has continued everywhere, from Slate to DCist to The Atlantic to TechCrunch to Greater Greater Washington. In the last half hour, even, Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert has published another defense of the service, as he asks what the underlying virtue of regulations are. It's a fair enough question. But how would the Commission and Uber hash out the issues? That practical reality has struck me as even more pressing.

Kojo Nnamdi has come to the rescue. D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick are coming together literally right now for The Kojo Nnamdi Show, broadcast on WAMU and available online. Tune in to today's 1 p.m. show to hear a dialogue that seems more than necessary.

Update, 1:24 p.m.: I've been listening to the broadcast so far as Commissioner Linton has explained last Friday's sting, the law as he's interpreting it regarding Uber and its illegality, and clarification on both the taxi fare increases and the proposed legislative overhaul that's dominated the D.C. transportation world in the course of the last month. Sadly, I'm beginning to think that Kojo will not actually be bringing Linton and the Uber CEO into one big conversation ... it's just Linton now, and I fear when the Uber head comes in, it'll also be a one-on-one.

“It happens to be D.C. law," Linton reiterated about the situation with Uber. "D.C. law prescribes that limousines must enter into an advance contract with the passenger.”

But I doubt Uber is quite so receptive to that perspective, which we'll see soon enough. When will a real dialogue begin?

Update, 2 p.m.: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joined Kojo by phone halfway through the news hour ... but sadly, Linton was already gone. A prime chance for dialogue, foiled yet again.

And astoundingly, Kalanick gave no impression that the two entites have talked or are making any moves to talk. Nnamdi asked the CEO whether Uber had reached out to the D.C. Taxicab Commission about this looming, huge question of their legality. Did he?

"We reached out last week and haven’t heard anything back," Kalanick replied.

Oh? That would likely be the e-mail that Uber D.C. General Manager Rachel Holt sent to the generic Taxicab Commission e-mail address last Wednesday. Although I agree that Linton should be making a stronger effort to talk to Uber himself, I also strongly believe Uber should pick up a phone. Not once ever have I received any impression that the company has tried to call the Commission.

But what did Uber do? The luxury car service started a cute Tumblr. Such moves may win support from Uber fans, but it's not the best way to successfully navigate a policy debate with existential threats to the company's future.

Kalanick also offered a few remarks that seemed genuinely baffling. Take this one: "No car or driver on our system has a meter in their car. We just don’t have meters in the car — these are limo companies." But Kalanick, let's take a look at your own Uber website. You say there's no meter, but let's look under "Pricing." For D.C., the Uber rates are calculated as follows:

$7 base + $3.25 per mile distance fee + $0.75 per minute time fee = Uber Fare

How is Uber going to argue they don't charge metered fees when their own site says they do? When a driver allegedly cited metered fees to Linton last Friday before his car was impounded? A footnote adds that the minimum fee in D.C. is $15. I agree that there's demand for a service like Uber in D.C. and accept that our regulations and laws should accommodate that ... but there's some mystifying moves from Uber as its status hovers in limbo.

And above all, Uber and the D.C. Taxicab Commission need to talk. What does all this back-and-forth playing off the media and off Tumblr and Twitter hashtags get either side? You'd imagine the whole thing was a PR move orchestrated by Uber itself.

Update, 2:20 p.m.: Meanwhile, D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, head of the transportation committee and at the helm for much of the taxicab overhaul, sent Commissioner Ron Linton a letter this morning requesting our laws accommodate Uber. Here we have all the more reason to resolve the legal tensions as soon as possible.

Cheh wrote the following:

Dear Mr. Linton:

I greatly appreciate your efforts to enforce the District's taxi laws equally, no matter who the driver or company may be. However, I am concerned about the tone of the Taxicab Commission's action against Uber. Instead of impounding vehicles and issuing over $1,000 in fines, it seems to me that a better approach would be to encourage innovation and work with Uber and other similar businesses in order to bring them into compliance.

After last week's sting operation, many residents rose to Uber's defense and voiced their support for the company. The reason for this is because many residents view the District's taxi system as mediocre and unreliable, and see Uber as a convenient, dependable alternative.

If our laws do not allow for Uber's model of metered fares for limousine service, then I hope we can work together to amend District law to permit Uber and similar companies to operate legally here. Clearly, there is strong demand for services like Uber in the District, and I believe that a regulated limousine system like Uber can greatly improve transportation options for residents and visitors alike.

Instead of penalizing innovation, I believe that the District should be supporting it. Therefore, if necessary, I would gladly introduce and move legislation that would authorize the Taxicab Commission to license Uber and other transportation innovators so that they can legally operate in the District. I look forward to exploring this issue with you further at our January 30 public hearing on taxi service improvements.

Sincerely,

Mary M. Cheh,

Councilmember, Ward 3

Cheh sends a strong message to Linton with this letter and offers several good points. The underlying goal of all this should be to expand transportation options in a way that makes sense. This legislative discussion is an appropriate reaction to the friction and limbo of the past few days, and Cheh strikes a correct tone, one that reflects the points others have recently made.

Funny how Cheh's letter never came up during Linton's session on The Kojo Nnamdi Show today, isn't it?

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