The D.C. Taxicab Commission’s Uber problem

August 26, 2013

THE D.C. Taxicab Commission has promulgated rules that threaten to make it harder for Uber and other car-dispatch enterprises to offer new services. Consumers are clamoring for attractive transportation alternatives, but that seems to be of little consequence to an agency fixated on protecting city cabs from competition. The D.C. Council should rescind these harmful rules and move to abolish a commission whose usefulness is increasingly dubious.

San Francisco-based Uber’s entry into the D.C. market two years ago has been marked by battles with the taxi commission; the latest scrimmage centers on regulations approved Monday that would restrict the types of cars that qualify as sedans. [Disclosure: Jeff Bezos, who has entered into an agreement to purchase The Post, is an investor in Uber.]

Uber, which uses mobile-phone applications to connect passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire, recently introduced a service that provides for lower fares through the use of mid-size fuel-efficient vehicles instead of the traditional luxury sedans. The new regulations would ban many of these vehicles from being hired, as well as place restrictions on the color of the cars. The restrictions are set to take effect as soon as they are published, though the commission said there would be further study.

The commission’s apparent reasoning is that the use of vehicles by dispatch services that are comparable to those used by traditional cab companies constitutes unfair competition and could affect the availability of street hailing and lead to higher prices. “We are not fighting with anyone,” taxi commission chair Ron Linton told us. He likened the body’s role to that of a referee of competing interest groups.

We would have hoped that the commission’s main concern would be the interest of consumers. It’s hard to see a service that provides cheaper and more efficient rides for District residents and visitors (not to mention one that helps the environment) as a bad thing. “Consumers benefit from competition between traditional and new products and services, and from new methods of delivering services,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staff wrote to the taxi commission in June. The letter advocated “a forward-looking regulatory framework” that welcomes innovation into the marketplace. The commission paid little mind to the letter — or to equally thoughtful communication from D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). Indeed, Mr. Linton told us he believed Uber had a hand in writing the letters, a charge Ms. Cheh and a FTC spokesman denied.

Ms. Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, rightly points out that taxicabs should be more heavily regulated than sedan services because their ability to accept street-hails doesn’t allow consumers to compare price or quality of service. Sedan-class vehicles, on the other hand, are booked through smartphone applications that afford protections to consumers.

Ms. Cheh said the council will revisit the regulations. Even more encouraging is that she agreed the time may have come to assess the role of the cab commission and whether it provides the best way to shape transportation policy.

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