Of Course Uber Should Be Regulated

Not the vehicle of the future.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In response to this Aaron Weiner piece about “ubertarians” (i.e., me) let me say that while Uber CEO Travis Kalanick may be a big Ayn Rand fan, I think it’s pretty obvious that Uber does in fact need to be regulated. And regulated pretty heavily.

After all, here’s the business: You’ve got people cruising around cities in medium-sized metal boxes capable of traveling at high speeds and powered by burning gasoline. Left unregulated, these vehicles would poison the air and crush huge numbers of innocent pedestrians. Which is why it’s good that the federal government regulates what kind of automobiles are considered safe to drive and regulates what kind of vehicle emissions are acceptable, and it’s why state and local governments regulate both who is allowed to drive cars (with driver’s licenses), under what circumstances (with drunk driving laws), and of course what you’re allowed to do with a vehicle (with road rules). These are important things for the government to do. And in fact if I was dictator of America, most of these rules would be stricter. Penalties for drunk driving and other moving violations should be much stricter, fewer teenagers and vision-impaired old people would be licensed to drive, gasoline taxes would be higher, etc.

The regulatory issue around Uber is whether the rules governing rides-for-hire need to be drastically different than the rules governing driving-yourself-around.

That’s a question that’s been given new salience by the yuppie-friendly business model of Uber. But it’s something that major cities have wrestled with for years. In New York, “gypsie cabs” have long prowled the streets of the outer boroughs while “dollar vans” have offered bus-like service for routes that the Metropolitan Transit Authority doesn’t deem worthy of service. In all these cases, public safety rationales are raised as reasons to make it illegal to drive a van or a car in exchange for money. And my answer is always the same: Of course there are significant public safety concerns about people driving vans. But the concerns are essentially the same whether it’s a delivery van or a dollar van. You need rules about what’s an acceptable vehicle, who’s an acceptable driver, and what’s an acceptable way to pilot the vehicle.

But you don’t need rules that specifically discriminate against rides for hire. The right way to think about this panoply of rules is that it’s all part of a regulatory structure designed to make single passenger automobile traffic and one-car-per-adult the normative American lifestyles. Anything you want to do around driving yourself is presumptively legal, and anything you want to do around hiring someone else to drive you is presumptively illegal. That’s a worldview that’s bad for the environment, bad for cities, bad for the poor, bad for many classes of physically impaired people, and all-in-all bad for America. But by all means, regulate cars-for-hire. Just regulate them the same way you regulate the other cars.