The Uber Battle

How D.C.’s atrocious, corrupt, and outdated taxicab cartel lived to see another day.

Uber Taxi.

Uber’s car service has faced opposition in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy Uber.

The name of the company—Uber—is twitch-inducing smug. The service it provides, in 13 cities (14 if you count the Hamptons as separate from New York), makes life easier for reasonably affluent people. You download a smartphone app, call a luxury sedan to your doorstep, and pay double the rate of a taxi. When Time’s Andrew Ferguson needed a framing device for his story about the capital’s young elites, he came up with “Uber-Washington.”

I’ve never actually used Uber. Saying that is not saying, “I enjoy D.C. cabs.” Nobody says that. Few cabs in this city take credit cards. Many of them give blank paper slips in lieu of receipts, which seems like unofficial discrimination against people who file expense reports. If you’ve ever arrived at Union Station or Reagan National Airport in the late evening, you’d settle for some of that—if you could find a cab. Yes, sure, I’ve enjoyed watching Lincoln Navigators pull up to dive bars and reveal a cargo of scruffy twentysomethings. But I’ve been rooting for Uber because the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia taxi regime is atrocious, and atrocious service-providers sometimes get scared straight by competition.

That theory was tested on Monday. The city’s Taxicab Commission despises Uber, makes a strong case that it’s illegal, and has conducted several stings against it. So the San Francisco-based company had been negotiating with D.C. councilwoman Mary Cheh—who represents the most wealthy, least black ward in the city—to settle the legal questions in a comprehensive taxi reform bill. Cheh’s bill would drag taxis into the latter part of the 20st century, with mandatory credit-card swipers, GPS tracking, and uniform lights. (In D.C., it’s not unheard of to try and flag down a cab with its light on and then notice that there’s already a passenger inside.)

As far as Cheh could tell, she had solved Uber’s problems. Her amendment legalized the service, and mandated that “minimum fare for sedan-class vehicles shall be five times the drop rate for taxicabs.” The luxury service was safe—right up until 3 p.m. yesterday, when the Uber website alerted users to the D.C. council’s plan, informing them that a five-times-the-cab-price rule would effectively stop the rollout of a new, low-cost UberX service.

The Internet—the favorite hangout of Uber-Washington—brimmed with white-hot anger. National tech sites piled on. “Uber cannot catch a break in Washington, DC,” reported TechCrunch. The names and emails of D.C. councilmembers were posted on Uber’s site, on Facebook, on Change.org. As far as Uber-Washington could tell, the Jell-O-brained D.C. council was going to do the bidding of cab companies and kill a great service.

On Tuesday morning, I climbed aboard the gentrifier’s preferred mode of transportation—the lightweight bicycle—and pedaled downhill to the John A. Wilson Building, where Uber’s fate would be decided.* No yuppies or Uber-ers had made it down. The sidewalk was occupied by more than a hundred cab drivers, hoisting signs of identical size and font with alternating slogans. “Bill 19-630 Is Approval of Apartheid.” “Why Does the City Council Want to Destroy Taxidrivers’ Livelihood?” “Don’t Forget the Elections Are Coming Up Soon.” Uber had to fail.

“They take away our business,” said Abdulwahab Abdulwahab, a Yemeni-American who has been driving a cab for 28 years. If the city let Uber operate without more regulations, it would hurt him. If the city forced him to put a GPS in his car, that would hurt him, too, by centralizing something he preferred to keep independent. The first fight was easier to win, as long as Uber was forced to choke down the price hike. Larry Frankel, the lion-maned chairman of the Dominion of Cab Drivers, worked through the crowd explaining the stakes.

“Uber can’t have this pass,” he told Abdulwahab. “If this passes, it’ll be the second urban area to undo [Uber]. The suggestion came from Las Vegas. What they did was raise the price to $40, minimum. Instead, what Cheh did was raise it five times.”

This was almost true. In Las Vegas, Uber got classified as a livery business. The city already had laws about the minimum rates for those businesses, and—almost as importantly—the city didn’t have all of the same problems with cabs. Only around a third of D.C. cabs have credit-card machines. D.C. cabs can’t pick up passengers from the airports in Virginia. They’re protected, in other words, by bad laws.*

Cheh had thought she was fixing that, but she’d been blindsided. Before the meeting, unbeknownst to most of the protesters outside, Cheh buckled and withdrew her Uber amendment. “I’d talked to Uber many, many times,” she told reporters. She’d found out about the “save Uber” campaign when an aide saw it online and alerted her.

“What I will do is introduce legislation when we’re back in September,” said Cheh with a shrug. “We have this recess in July and August, and that could be interesting. Right now, they’re operating illegally. That’s how the Taxicab Commission was treating them. We were trying to exempt them from regulation and let them operate.”

Taxi drivers, many of them African immigrants with halting English, filed into the council room, not far from Taxicab Commission’s glowering chairman Ron Linton. They watched the Uber amendment be withdrawn. Not what they wanted—the price rule would have been nice—but at least Uber wasn’t getting a special favor.

And right then Jack Evans, a councilman from another largely white ward, asked to read his own amendment. He’d introduced it alongside Tommy Wells, David Catania, and Michael Brown—the latter two at-large members of the council, the former two both white. Evans wanted to add language so that “a business that uses a mobile phone application to provide service shall be exempt from regulation.”

That would have been a get-out-of-jail-free card for Uber. The cabbies bristled and groaned. Now, finally, the councilmembers who represented the less white parts of D.C. could take their whacks. Marion Barry, the former mayor who now represents the city’s poorest, most black ward, asked the council to think of the people behind the wheels.

“What this company is doing is having a great dent on D.C. taxi drivers,” Barry intoned, with maximum pathos. “They have no retirement, no benefits, no health care.” He’d met with some of the drivers outside, and he felt their pain. “I’m a friend of the taxi industry. They’ve been political friends of mine. They’re outraged.”

Over to Vincent Orange, the black council at-large member who’d also rallied protesters outside. “I’m pretty appalled,” he said.* “Someone’s in California, he didn’t like the bill that was cut out with Councilmember Cheh, and then all of a sudden, all these emails came in, but he’s not from the District of Columbia! I don’t know who this person is.”

Cheh had actually been negotiating with the D.C. branch of Uber, but the “California” point was packed with meaning. Orange didn’t think his colleagues were thinking of real Washingtonians.

But that didn’t fly. The other councilmember who represents the poorer parts of D.C., east of the Anacostia River, is Yvette Alexander. She didn’t back the Uber waiver, necessarily. But she understood why she was hearing so much from constituents about a pricey, snobby service. “Uber does come east of the river without hesitation,” said Alexander. “When somebody calls Uber, they are there. For the fact that Uber does come out, I really do support them. For the members of the taxicab industry that is in this chamber, you really need to take note.”

That didn’t quiet down the “nay” votes. The Uber amendment, in whatever form, was going to be withdrawn. The council was going to keep the status quo, with Uber operating in the shadow of the law, as it voted to put more demands on cabs. But the pro-Uber caucus used its opportunity to explain why low standards and stupid regulations had made this business model vulnerable.

“We should be embracing more of this technology,” said Catania. “If regulation meant high quality service at a good value, then D.C. would have the best service in the nation.

The fact that people are willing to pay more for Uber should tell you something.”

Correction, July 10, 2012: This article originally misstated the name of the John A. Wilson Building, as well as the title of D.C. councilmember Vincent Orange. The article also incorrectly stated that D.C. cabs cannot take passengers to Virginia airports.