An app-based ride-hailing service is violating D.C. law by serving only select neighborhoods — none east of the Anacostia River — and risks losing its license if it does not expand coverage across the District in 90 days, city officials said this week.
Uber and Lyft have become household names, but a lesser-known competitor, Via, has captured an increasing share of the Washington ride-share market by offering discounted rides in the city’s downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods.
The coverage area for the service, which has been operating in the District since 2016, stretches from Georgetown to Ivy City, and Washington Navy Yard to Petworth. But its coverage map excludes Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia, largely black and low-income neighborhoods that have historically been underserved and ignored by new services — a trend most recently exhibited by food delivery apps and websites, as a Washington Post story highlighted this week. (Some neighborhoods in upper Northwest and far Northeast Washington are also omitted from Via’s service map.)
New York-based Via contends its rollout strategy is meant to encourage pooling in dense areas and cut down on congestion by reducing solo rides.
But D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who drafted the city’s law governing ride-share services, said Via’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood model violates specific provisions of the law that require companies to provide service across the District.
“A company that uses digital dispatch shall provide service throughout the entire District,” according to the Vehicle for Hire Innovation Amendment Act of 2014.
“I meant to be very, very clear about that,” Cheh said after Post inquiries about Via’s coverage area. “In fact, part of the whole benefit of the app services was supposed to be to provide service throughout the District.”
Cheh said the legislation, co-introduced with council member David Grosso (I-At Large), was meant to combat discrimination often faced by those trying to use traditional taxi services.
“The idea is that when you serve, you serve everybody in the District,” Cheh said.
Following inquiries, the office of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Thursday that Via has 90 days to broaden its coverage area or face penalties from city regulators, who could levy fines or strip it of its operating authority.
“The administration is giving Via a 90-day warning to expand to provide service across all eight wards of the District of Columbia,” Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster said.
Via did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Bowser’s warning.
The company said its limited coverage area is part of a larger business and congestion-reduction strategy. It launched in fall 2016, looking to capitalize on shuttered Red Line service during Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance program, with a coverage map that largely mirrored the rail line during the disruptions.
“In order for our shared rides to remain affordable, reduce congestion, and help cut down on emissions, we must efficiently pool multiple passengers in every vehicle. Consequently, our model in every Via city has been to start operations in the densest area of the city, build up ridership until we achieve meaningful ride-pooling in that area, and then expand outward to the next area,” Via spokeswoman Gabrielle McCaig said. “This gradual approach to growth takes time, but ensures we aren’t adding vehicles to the road that are primarily serving single-passenger trips.”
McCaig said Via has gradually been expanding its footprint since launching in the District.
“Our plan is to continue to expand, with a goal of covering the entire District in the coming months,” she said.
Via operates in Chicago, New York and the District, where it is the lone serious ride-hailing competitor to Uber and Lyft after the demise of start-ups such as Split and Sidecar, along with microtransit options such as Bridj. When Via launched, it offered rides for $2.15, making its service directly competitive with Metro fares, which at the time cost the same amount during peak hours. But experts note that ride-share companies aiming for profitability do not have the same coverage incentives as traditional transit services, and fares subsidized through venture capital can make for an uneven playing field.
The D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles, which regulates ride-sharing companies, did not explain how Via managed to secure operating authority despite the equal-service provisions. Department spokesman Neville Waters said the company “has met the requirements” to operate in the city, and referred further questions to Bowser.
McCaig said Via is “fully licensed” in the District and that the DFHV found it in compliance with “all regulations.”
But council members and community advocates disagreed and pressed the city for an explanation.
“Equitable access to transportation is critical to ensuring that every resident of the District of Columbia can participate fully in all the economic and cultural activities the city has to offer,” said council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development. “If the company is violating the District’s human rights laws, or in any way discriminating against our residents, they must end that practice immediately and comply with District law.”
McDuffie’s role includes oversight of the DFHV.
After The Post article about the lack of food-delivery options east of the Anacostia, Ward 7 resident and community activist Mysiki Valentine took to Twitter to criticize some apps’ aversion to serving residents in the community. When a user attributed the problem to supply and demand, Valentine replied: “What’s right is right, depriving an undeveloped, underserved community is wrong and very sinister.”
Valentine said businesses that refuse to serve communities east of the Anacostia are falling back on outdated perceptions of Wards 7 and 8.
“The narrative needs to be changed, companies need to be confronted and businesses need to assist [in] asking for equal treatment to all [residents],” Valentine said.
Valentine said models such as Via’s not only deprive residents of the option to use their services, but also limit job opportunities to those residents to become drivers.
But the Ward 7 activist said it is not just the companies that are responsible for ensuring equity in their services. It’s up to the city to protect its residents and make sure they are treated equitably.
“The push has to also come from the city as well to echo the voice that all citizens, all residents in the city should be treated equally regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of what side of the city they live in,” Valentine said.
Uber and Lyft also have been accused of discriminating against riders.
The DFHV has collected more than 200 complaints against private ride-sharing services, including reports of discrimination, since it launched a pilot program last fall to collect customer feedback on the companies.
The Washington City Paper reported in 2016 that a Lyft driver refused to pick up a woman in the Fairlawn neighborhood, telling her in a text, “I don’t pick up from SE, sorry,” when she attempted to hail a ride. Lyft told the paper that it suspended the driver and “does not tolerate any form of discrimination.”
The same year, WUSA (Channel 9) captured the experiences of riders who said they faced cancellations after hailing rides in Southeast Washington.
“The only time I’ve had [Ubers] cancel on me, I’ve been east of the river,” one rider said. Uber told the station it forbids discrimination in pickups and drop-offs.
The District’s ride-sharing law includes a similar provision, prohibiting “[refusal] of service based on the pickup or drop-off location of the passenger.”
Cheh urged a stern response from city regulators.
“If I were running the department, I would have them come in and say, . . . ‘What are you doing to come into compliance? And if you don’t come into compliance, here are the things that could happen.’ ”
“I think the department should do what it’s supposed to do,” she said.