The Uber Battle
How D.C.’s atrocious, corrupt, and outdated taxicab cartel lived to see another day.
“What I will do is introduce legislation when we’re back in September,” said Cheh with a shrug. “We have this recess in July and August, and that could be interesting. Right now, they’re operating illegally. That’s how the Taxicab Commission was treating them. We were trying to exempt them from regulation and let them operate.”
Taxi drivers, many of them African immigrants with halting English, filed into the council room, not far from Taxicab Commission’s glowering chairman Ron Linton. They watched the Uber amendment be withdrawn. Not what they wanted—the price rule would have been nice—but at least Uber wasn’t getting a special favor.
And right then Jack Evans, a councilman from another largely white ward, asked to read his own amendment. He’d introduced it alongside Tommy Wells, David Catania, and Michael Brown—the latter two at-large members of the council, the former two both white. Evans wanted to add language so that “a business that uses a mobile phone application to provide service shall be exempt from regulation.”
That would have been a get-out-of-jail-free card for Uber. The cabbies bristled and groaned. Now, finally, the councilmembers who represented the less white parts of D.C. could take their whacks. Marion Barry, the former mayor who now represents the city’s poorest, most black ward, asked the council to think of the people behind the wheels.
“What this company is doing is having a great dent on D.C. taxi drivers,” Barry intoned, with maximum pathos. “They have no retirement, no benefits, no health care.” He’d met with some of the drivers outside, and he felt their pain. “I'm a friend of the taxi industry. They've been political friends of mine. They're outraged.”
Over to Vincent Orange, the black council at-large member who’d also rallied protesters outside. “I’m pretty appalled,” he said.* “Someone’s in California, he didn’t like the bill that was cut out with Councilmember Cheh, and then all of a sudden, all these emails came in, but he’s not from the District of Columbia! I don’t know who this person is.”
Cheh had actually been negotiating with the D.C. branch of Uber, but the “California” point was packed with meaning. Orange didn’t think his colleagues were thinking of real Washingtonians.
But that didn’t fly. The other councilmember who represents the poorer parts of D.C., east of the Anacostia River, is Yvette Alexander. She didn’t back the Uber waiver, necessarily. But she understood why she was hearing so much from constituents about a pricey, snobby service. “Uber does come east of the river without hesitation,” said Alexander. “When somebody calls Uber, they are there. For the fact that Uber does come out, I really do support them. For the members of the taxicab industry that is in this chamber, you really need to take note.”
That didn’t quiet down the “nay” votes. The Uber amendment, in whatever form, was going to be withdrawn. The council was going to keep the status quo, with Uber operating in the shadow of the law, as it voted to put more demands on cabs. But the pro-Uber caucus used its opportunity to explain why low standards and stupid regulations had made this business model vulnerable.
“We should be embracing more of this technology,” said Catania. “If regulation meant high quality service at a good value, then D.C. would have the best service in the nation.
The fact that people are willing to pay more for Uber should tell you something.”
Correction, July 10, 2012: This article originally misstated the name of the John A. Wilson Building, as well as the title of D.C. councilmember Vincent Orange. The article also incorrectly stated that D.C. cabs cannot take passengers to Virginia airports.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.