THE SUCCESS OF its limo dispatch services in other major cities and careful analysis of the local transportation market convinced Uber that the District would be a good place to launch operations. The firm was exactly right about the demand for its service. What it didn’t take into account was a meddlesome city government that seems far more interested in protecting the interests of a politically connected taxi industry than in supporting a welcome new transportation option for consumers.
From the moment it started operations last December, the San Francisco-based company has had to fight off attacks from officials hostile to its innovative use of technology to match riders with available limousine drivers. First came a wacky sting operation in which the D.C. Taxicab Commission decreed Uber to be “illegal” and impounded a limousine that subscribed to the service. Next came a proposal by the D.C. Council to establish a price floor, a move withdrawn when Uber’s energized customers made their voices heard. Now comes new foolishness from the taxi commission in the way of rules that seek to regulate everything from the color and make of cars to the kind of receipts used. Demand pricing, central to Uber’s business model, would be banned, and only companies with at least 20 vehicles would be allowed.
“From the draconian to the inane,” is how Uber founder Travis Kalanick aptly characterized the draft regulations at a hearing this week before the council’s transportation committee. Before entering the D.C. market, Uber (which supplies the technology but not the vehicles) examined the laws governing the operation of taxicabs, sedans and other public vehicles-for-hire in the District and determined that connecting ride-seekers to licensed sedan vehicles operated by licensed sedan drivers through a mobile phone application is legal. Uber — judging by the way its business has taken off and the fact that no complaints have been registered about it — is enabling more efficient use of limousines, which benefits both consumers and drivers. So, what exactly, as Mr. Kalanick framed the question to the council, is the problem that needs to be solved?
Insight into the answer was provided in the sharp questioning at Monday’s hearing from council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who worried about the “deleterious effect” that Uber’s success has had on taxi drivers. No doubt the clean, reliable transportation that Uber makes possible is competition for the city’s less-than-stellar taxi service — but why is that bad? Instead of conjuring problems with a new business venture that is clearly satisfying a need, officials would do better to focus on the possibilities that it and other new transportation innovations offer. The last thing that’s needed is burdensome overregulation that comes under the empty guise of protecting consumers or leveling the playing field.