D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (Ward 3) stepped into a firestorm yesterday when car service Uber claimed that the council was about to forbid lower prices for its service. This fight resembles so many policy debates around technology, because it’s a choice between two fundamental philosophies.
Should a market have a number of rules which define ahead of time what companies can do, or should it create space for companies to try innovative things, knowing that many will fall amid competition? From Uber to patents to telecom policy, this is perhaps the central debate in technology policy today.
Cheh probably thought she was helping Uber. The company and D.C. regulators are embroiled in a dispute about whether the service is legal. That’s because “black car” sedans can pick up passengers, but only to transport them for fixed fares determined ahead of time. Want to charge a rider by time and distance at the end of the ride? Then you’re a taxi and have to charge set taxi rates, say D.C. regulators.
Uber claims its service is legal. Cheh’s amendments would have made it unambiguously legal, but only so long as the service charges five times the price of a taxi for the “flag drop,” the initial amount on the meter at the start of a ride. Perhaps not surprisingly, Uber’s flag drop charge was exactly five times the current taxi flag drop fee.
The political details have been reported widely in the press. Uber members flooded council in-boxes, and Jack Evans claimed to have received 5,000 e-mails. A number of council members, like David Catania, said they didn’t want to be setting policy around protecting the taxi industry, while Marion Barry stood with taxi drivers.
Cheh decided to pull her amendments to give her a chance to rework them, likely in consultation with Uber. She said she did consult with Uber and thought they had a compromise; Uber’s CEO says they never agreed to this language.
This story is a classic case of Silicon Valley meets Washington, even more literally than usual. Many start-up companies encounter the world of laws, lobbying and legislation and find the culture gap baffling. It’s not just Congress (which, for that matter, steps all over the District government all the time); it’s state legislators, too, like the California state senators who tried to ban Gmail when it came out.
Often in these kinds of cases, everyone means well. Cheh is one of the council’s most thoughtful members and a strong supporter of transportation choices. She’s no enemy of innovation; her staff organized a ride in Google’s self-driving car and she raved about the experience.
[Continue reading David Alpert’s post at Greater Greater Washington.]
David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.