Is D.C. big enough for cabs + Uber, Sidecar and Lyft?

D.C. Taxicab drivers at a D.C. Council hearing on new rules for app-based services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. The drivers say they rules give newcomers an unfair advantage. (Lori Aratani/The Washington Post)
D.C. taxicab drivers at a D.C. Council hearing on new rules for app-based services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. The drivers say they rules give newcomers an unfair advantage. (Lori Aratani/The Washington Post)

The topic was legislation that would establish rules for app-based transportation services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar — but it was D.C.’s taxicab industry that took a beating during a Monday council hearing.

The District’s taxi drivers were criticized for being rude and unresponsive, refusing to pick up certain riders and drive to certain places. Their representatives were scolded for wanting to shut down the competition rather than make improvements that would make D.C.’s cabs more competitive.

It was a long (more than five hours of testimony) but spirited afternoon, with several testy exchanges. At one point, Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), clearly exasperated after a series of pointed moments with D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton, snapped: “I’m not the same ilk as you. I do not have fear of the future.”

How to regulate these new services that have grown exponentially in D.C. and across the U.S. has become a major issue for policymakers from Seattle to Miami.

The council chamber was jammed with taxicab drivers carrying placards that read “Justice” and “Respect” on one side, Lyft drivers (in signature hot pink shirts, some carrying the distinctive pink moustaches that adorn their vehicles) taking seats in the middle of the room, and Uber drives in their chic black T-shirts on another side.

The proposed council legislation would allow UberX, Sidecar and Lyft to continue to operate in the District, but would require them to meet certain requirements regarding insurance and driver background checks. The legislation essentially makes permanent emergency regulations that were passed by the council last year.  The D.C. Taxicab Commission also has proposed legislation with similar requirements, but places a 20-hour-per-week limit on drivers for such services. Drivers who wish to work more than 20 hours a week could, but would have to obtain credentials from the taxi commission.

The council legislation is sponsored by Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Grosso (I-At Large).

Many who testified — drivers and passengers alike — sang the praises of newcomers Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. (Though one can’t help but wonder whether the deck was stacked just a wee bit.)

“I have been very pleased with Uber,” said Bereket Selassie, a Ward 6 resident and one of more than 30 people who testified. “We use the service all the time.”

Selassie said he has a level of comfort with Uber that he doesn’t have with D.C. cabs because he knows the driver’s identity and also can track the movement and route of the car.

Lisa Floyd, a mother of seven who drives for UberX, Uber’s lower-cost alternative where regular people drive their own vehicles, said the job was a life-saver for her, offering a steady income and a flexible schedule that allow her to be there for her children when they need her.

A small number of taxicab drivers took to the mic, with many saying they don’t mind the competition, but that the rules proposed by the council give the app-based drivers an advantage because they don’t face the same licensing and permitting requirements as cab drivers.

The cab industry wasn’t entirely alone. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was the lone voice that stood with cab drivers, at one point hinting that the newcomers had had a hand in crafting the legislation now being considered by the council. Grosso and Cheh denied any such connection. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) was also critical of the cab industry, saying that cabbies had only themselves to blame.

“The D.C. taxi industry made it easy for competitors to come in and make inroads,” Wells said.

But the hearing did touch on issues that states and cities across the country are dealing with, including the question of insurance requirements and whether there are safeguards that prevent this new breed of transportation service from discriminating against certain passengers. Also a major issue: wheelchair accessibility.

This isn’t the last time we’ll hear this debate. And we’ll see what happens when the legislation moves to the full council for a hearing.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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