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Posted at 03:42 PM ET, 01/11/2012

Uber car service runs afoul of D.C. Taxi Commission


Uber offers “convenient way to get a classy ride,” but is it legal? (Bill O'Leary - WASHINGTON POST)
Uber, the well-publicized San Francisco startup that offers luxury transportation though a smartphone app, could be in regulatory peril less than a month after its D.C. debut.

At today’s D.C. Taxicab Commission meeting, Chairman Ron Linton told a taxi driver concerned about the new operation that Uber is “operating illegally, and we plan to take steps against them,” according to TBD’s John Hendel, who was at the meeting.

In an interview this afternoon, Linton said that Uber appears to be flouting volumes of city taxi and limousine regulations. The company is not registered with the commission, he said, and it is not clear that its drivers are licensed.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive officer, said Wednesday that he is confident that his company is following all requisite laws and regulations.

Uber is trying to occupy a market space somewhere between the taxi and the limousine. Uber rides are metered, like a taxi, using a proprietary smartphone-based system. But they are offering limo-level services in luxury sedans at a premium price — a $7 base charge, plus a $3.25 per mile fee and a $0.75 per minute time fee.

City regulations don’t have much to say about such a creature. If Uber were running taxis, they’d have to use commission-approved time-and-distance meters and commission-set rates, and their drivers would have to hold hack licenses. If Uber were running limos, each trip would have to have a agreed-upon price set in advance and drivers would have to hold chauffeur licenses.

Uber, Kalanick said, does not employ cars and drivers; it operates a system that connects riders via smartphone with limousine companies that have contracts with Uber but are otherwise independent businesses. Those companies and their drivers, he said, are required by contract to have all the requisite licenses, registrations and insurance limo drivers are required to have.

Kalanick and Uber’s D.C. manager, Rachel Holt, said that they “had conversations” with Taxicab Commission representatives seeking clarification about D.C. regulations before Uber’s Dec. 15 public launch.

“We would not have launched in D.C. if we were not confident and comfortable that we were doing right by the regulations and by our customers,” Kalanick said.

But Linton said he has “no record they ever approached our commission” about any aspect of doing business in the city. “No one has ever reached out to me from Uber,” he added. “Who are these guys kidding?”

Kalanick said the conversations took place “at a lower level” with commission staff.

The District’s mayor has broad authority under law to “issue any reasonable rule relating to the supervision of passenger vehicles for hire he or she considers necessary for the protection of the public.”

As those regulations now stand, Uber cars would certainly seem to fall under the definition of limousine — “motor vehicle carrying passengers for hire in the District, designed to carry fewer than nine (9) passengers, excluding the driver, with three (3) or more doors, other than a taxicab, coach, or wheelchair accessible van, and not permitted to accept street hails from prospective passengers in the street.”

This is not the first time Uber has run into regulatory questions. In October 2010, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the California Public Utilities Commission issued a cease-and-desist order against the company’s San Francisco operations, but Uber has addressed the concerns and pressed on. (Slate’s Matthew Yglesias wrote last month about the difficulty that traditional regulatory constructs are having in dealing with Uber’s business model.)

”We’re still operating in San Francisco and doing quite well out here,” said Kalanick, who added that he’ll be contacting Linton to address any concerns he has about Uber’s operations. “We have an office in D.C.; we’re working with local businesses. We want to show them we’re operating within the regulations.”

By  |  03:42 PM ET, 01/11/2012

 
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