Uber triumphant

December 3, 2012

Never fear: Your cheap, classy rides are soon to be unequivocally legal. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Updated 12/4

The New York Times has a long article today on Uber, the luxe-car-dispatch app, and its battles with regulators across the country. The article notes the fights have only intensified of late, with a “Smartphone Apps Committee” drafting model legislation that would essentially outlaw Uber in cities that adopt it.

Lucky for D.C.’s Uber users, then, that they live in an oasis of innovation and progressive transportation regulation.

Say what now? The District of Columbia? The jurisdiction that not so long ago wanted to pry residents’ limo apps from their cold, dead hands? The home of the legislature whose goal, Uber’s CEO once wrote, is “to make sure there is no viable alternative to a taxi”?

Why, yes, indeed. The D.C. Council is expected to take a second and final vote Tuesday on legislation that stands to enshrine Uber and its lesser-known competitors as permanent fixtures of the D.C. transportation scene. The “Public Vehicle-for-Hire Innovation Amendment Act” essentially allows the Uber that residents know and love to continue operating with little practical effect on its business model.

How did this happen in a town that CEO Travis Kalanick once characterized as being in thrall to the incumbent taxi industry? Sure, part of the story is that a rider revolt forced the council to back off more onerous restrictions as Kalanick held forth on the battle between sainted innovators and evil regulators and pushed the idea that Uber should operate wholly free of government interference. (That’s a notion he has not abandoned, according to the Times article: “If you put yourself in the position to ask for something that is already legal, you’ll find you’ll never be able to roll out.”)

But the other part of the story is that Uber, after the months of sturm und drang, sat down at the table (or at least its ace lobbyist did) with council staff and made legislative sausage that tastes good enough that the bill is likely to pass without incident Tuesday and without paroxysms of Uber outrage. The latest version of the bill, in fact, includes a big win for the company: allowing drivers to continue to privately rate their passengers as long as the drivers sign a nondiscrimination policy.

“It’s good for everybody,” said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) of the bill she wrote. “It fosters innovation and allows the service to operate, but still there are things in place, to make sure the cars are insured, that the drivers are licensed, that there are consumer protections in place.” 

In other words, the system worked: Through rigorous public participation, grievances were redressed in a mutually agreeable manner that protects diverse interests. Woo, democracy.

Update, 12/4, 5:20 p.m.: The D.C. Council passed the sedan bill Tuesday evening unanimously and without debate.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · December 3, 2012