Uber vs. the D.C. Taxi Commission

The debate around Uber continues in Washington, D.C. David Alpert from Greater Greater Washington has the story.

A D.C. taxi. Photo credit: Flickr user Matt Peoples.

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“The DC Taxi Commission (DCTC) has proposed new regulations for “sedanservices, rides you pre-arrange instead of just hopping in a cab driving down the street. Uber, a popular service that uses sedans, says the new rules will make their business impossible in DC, but DCTC Chairman Ron Linton says Uber is misreading the regulations.

In a letter to elected officials, Uber continues its aggressive rhetorical stance against regulators. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick writes:

These rules are not designed to promote safety, nor improve quality of service. They are intended to shut Uber and similar technology companies down. … The rules, which the DCTC has published and coordinated to present at Mary Cheh’s hearing on Monday, are a blatant attempt to shut small sedan companies down and therefore Uber’s business. Our position is that any additional DCTC rule-making around sedans must be severely restricted.

Linton vehemently disputed that the commission is trying to attack Uber’s business model. “I think [Kalanick]‘s figured out that by being a bad boy he gets more attention, more publicity and more customers,” Linton said. “We not only don’t want to shut them down, we’re trying to create a condition in which he and competitors” can compete. “We don’t want to limit the competition, we want to have an open field.”

The emotional intensity certainly has worked well for Uber thus far. A heated email about Mary Cheh’s proposed regulations stirred thousands of residents to write the Council, even if the actual facts still remain in dispute at best. Maybe this is indeed a good lobbying strategy for startups in regulated fields: Build a great service that might be in the gray area of the law, accumulate a lot of happy customers, object loudly when lawmakers or regulators take unfavorable action, and channel customer energy to get better regulations.

As with the the last few rounds of the Uber battles, the folks from the government argue Uber is reading the laws wrong. Uber’s letter alleges, for instance, that one of the provisions limits all trips to start and end within DC, but a closer look (§1405.1) shows that it also exempts trips that comply with the reciprocal agreements DC has with surrounding jurisdictions.

This provision changes nothing in the law, Linton said, except requiring the dispatch company, like Uber, to ensure that it’s dispatching a vehicle allowed to make that trip. If it stays within DC, it has to be a DC-licensed sedan, but someone going to Virginia could use a DC or Virginia sedan.

Companies need a minumum of 20 vehicles

§1401.5 of the rules says that any “sedan company or association” must have 20 or more vehicles. In a telephone interview, Kalanick said that such a rule would “shut down pretty much everyone we partner with.” Uber’s sedan drivers are individual operators who own a single sedan, or in a few cases, a handful of cars.

But Linton said Uber “needs to have some lawyers read the regulations who know how to read regulations.” He explained that this rule doesn’t apply to individual operators, who aren’t part of a “sedan company or association.” Linton did say that such an operator wouldn’t be allowed to have 2 or 3 vehicles under this rule, which has long applied in DC to all “public vehicle for hire” companies. “We don’t accept anything between 1 and 19,” Linton said.

Why is this? Linton said “it’s historic,” and added that changing it would make the commission’s workload too great. They have 116 taxi companies now, and don’t want 2-300. Workload is also a reason they have not been authorizing new sedan operators for some time, one reason Uber drivers’ cars are registered outside DC.

It seems that this rule should change. But the commission’s workload is not a good enough reason to refuse business licenses to anyone. Our economy usually does not, and never should, operate on a principle that you can’t engage in smaller-scale economic activity because the government is too busy to review it. Some reasonable approval process may be appropriate, but if the regulatory agency is too busy to handle approvals, they ought to either get more budget or authorize more applications without such detailed review.

Sedan drivers will need a handheld printer

The rules also require each taxi to contain a “handheld device,” with the capability to to print a receipt, send a receipt electronically, and/or audibly read out the fare. It also has to track vehicles using GPS and upload that information to DCTC.

Kalanick said it would be prohibitive for Uber to create a compliant device. Given that that their current system of using an app or text messaging is working well for its users, he asked, “what problem are they trying to solve?”

Linton said the problem is to ensure that drivers don’t scam customers. He noted that drivers already have devices like these that they are using today. When the trip is done, the drivers have to hit “complete.” They could hold it in front of the passenger to show they’ve hit complete, but it would be easier, Linton said, to just have the device print out a receipt.

Is that technically difficult or expensive? Linton said, “I understand it’s no big deal to be able to have a printing device on them.” What if Uber’s devices are functioning well without these requirements? Linton said that Uber will surely claim that, but they have gotten a few complaints, it’s the commission’s job to ensure that riders get charged fairly.

Kalanick, though, worries that every time Uber wanted to add a new feature, they would have to change the physical devices and get the commission’s approval. That would hinder innovation, he said.

Dispatch services need to have a place of business in DC

Another potentially problematic rule is §1403.1:

Each person operating a sedan company or association in the District of Columbia and each person operating a sedan vehicle reservation service operation in the District of Columbia or offering reservation services to any sedan vehicle licensed in the District of Columbia, whether by central dispatch, mobile phone or other electronic device communication or other form of digital dispatch shall maintain a bona fide administrative office in the District of Columbia.
Uber has a place of business in DC, so this wouldn’t affect them, but why should DC require this for reservation services? Linton said that every company that does business in DC needs a business license, and this is no different.
What about an Internet e-commerce company that ships goods here? If I buy something from them, they don’t need to be a DC-licensed business, even though I am doing business with them. A taxi dispatch service seems more analogous to that.

Taxi Magic is in Alexandria. Do they need a DC office just to have an app that lets you reserve DC Yellow Cabs? Linton said, “That is good enough, they are in Alexandria, we don’t fuss with them about that. We’re talking about companies that are located in San Francisco, Boston, or New Orleans. We can’t reach them.”

However, the regulations don’t explicitly exempt Alexandria businesses. Having DCTC just not enforce the rule against some companies is not a good approach. And why is the ability to “reach them” the issue? DCTC could set up rules for such services that work with DC-licensed sedans whether or not they have an office in DC.

Debate will continue Monday

Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) is holding an oversight hearing on sedan services Monday. I’ll be participating, and plan to repeat the points I’ve made before. There’s a role for regulations, but we should err on the side of less prescriptive ones, rather than more.

Uber is bringing more choice to District travelers. Whether or not you use their service or not, we want to foster more options rather than fewer. We want to enable other companies to create taxi dispatch services. Linton wants that too, but making it succeed requires making the barriers to entry as low as possible, and sometimes the regulations get in the way.

Do these? Linton said that he’s talked to the heads of several other current or aspiring taxi dispatch companies, and they don’t have a problem with the regulations. Taxi Magic Director of Marketing and Communications Matt Carrington said, “Our platform is reforming the taxi industry through technology (as opposed to disrupting it).”

Kalanick agrees that regulators have certain legitimate goals, listing “safety, accessibility, and transparency.” Rules which ensure that cabs are safe make sense, as are ones that guarantee that services won’t discriminate against people in certain parts of the District.

If regulations don’t directly advance those ends, or if they put up barriers to Uber or new services, DC should steer clear. But some regulations will serve an important goal, and then it will do a disservice to District riders if Uber rallies its customers to oppose them without all the facts.

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Tags: infrastructurewashington dcuber

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