The Uber Battle
How D.C.’s atrocious, corrupt, and outdated taxicab cartel lived to see another day.
Uber's car service has faced opposition in Washington, D.C.
Image courtesy Uber.
The name of the company—Uber—is twitch-inducing smug. The service it provides, in 13 cities (14 if you count the Hamptons as separate from New York), makes life easier for reasonably affluent people. You download a smartphone app, call a luxury sedan to your doorstep, and pay double the rate of a taxi. When Time’s Andrew Ferguson needed a framing device for his story about the capital’s young elites, he came up with “Uber-Washington.”
I’ve never actually used Uber. Saying that is not saying, “I enjoy D.C. cabs.” Nobody says that. Few cabs in this city take credit cards. Many of them give blank paper slips in lieu of receipts, which seems like unofficial discrimination against people who file expense reports. If you’ve ever arrived at Union Station or Reagan National Airport in the late evening, you’d settle for some of that—if you could find a cab. Yes, sure, I’ve enjoyed watching Lincoln Navigators pull up to dive bars and reveal a cargo of scruffy twentysomethings. But I’ve been rooting for Uber because the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia taxi regime is atrocious, and atrocious service-providers sometimes get scared straight by competition.
That theory was tested on Monday. The city’s Taxicab Commission despises Uber, makes a strong case that it’s illegal, and has conducted several stings against it. So the San Francisco-based company had been negotiating with D.C. councilwoman Mary Cheh—who represents the most wealthy, least black ward in the city—to settle the legal questions in a comprehensive taxi reform bill. Cheh’s bill would drag taxis into the latter part of the 20st century, with mandatory credit-card swipers, GPS tracking, and uniform lights. (In D.C., it’s not unheard of to try and flag down a cab with its light on and then notice that there’s already a passenger inside.)
As far as Cheh could tell, she had solved Uber’s problems. Her amendment legalized the service, and mandated that “minimum fare for sedan-class vehicles shall be five times the drop rate for taxicabs.” The luxury service was safe—right up until 3 p.m. yesterday, when the Uber website alerted users to the D.C. council’s plan, informing them that a five-times-the-cab-price rule would effectively stop the rollout of a new, low-cost UberX service.
The Internet—the favorite hangout of Uber-Washington—brimmed with white-hot anger. National tech sites piled on. “Uber cannot catch a break in Washington, DC,” reported TechCrunch. The names and emails of D.C. councilmembers were posted on Uber’s site, on Facebook, on Change.org. As far as Uber-Washington could tell, the Jell-O-brained D.C. council was going to do the bidding of cab companies and kill a great service.
On Tuesday morning, I climbed aboard the gentrifier’s preferred mode of transportation—the lightweight bicycle—and pedaled downhill to the John A. Wilson Building, where Uber’s fate would be decided.* No yuppies or Uber-ers had made it down. The sidewalk was occupied by more than a hundred cab drivers, hoisting signs of identical size and font with alternating slogans. “Bill 19-630 Is Approval of Apartheid.” “Why Does the City Council Want to Destroy Taxidrivers’ Livelihood?” “Don’t Forget the Elections Are Coming Up Soon.” Uber had to fail.
“They take away our business,” said Abdulwahab Abdulwahab, a Yemeni-American who has been driving a cab for 28 years. If the city let Uber operate without more regulations, it would hurt him. If the city forced him to put a GPS in his car, that would hurt him, too, by centralizing something he preferred to keep independent. The first fight was easier to win, as long as Uber was forced to choke down the price hike. Larry Frankel, the lion-maned chairman of the Dominion of Cab Drivers, worked through the crowd explaining the stakes.
“Uber can’t have this pass,” he told Abdulwahab. “If this passes, it’ll be the second urban area to undo [Uber]. The suggestion came from Las Vegas. What they did was raise the price to $40, minimum. Instead, what Cheh did was raise it five times.”
This was almost true. In Las Vegas, Uber got classified as a livery business. The city already had laws about the minimum rates for those businesses, and—almost as importantly—the city didn’t have all of the same problems with cabs. Only around a third of D.C. cabs have credit-card machines. D.C. cabs can’t pick up passengers from the airports in Virginia. They’re protected, in other words, by bad laws.*
Cheh had thought she was fixing that, but she’d been blindsided. Before the meeting, unbeknownst to most of the protesters outside, Cheh buckled and withdrew her Uber amendment. “I’d talked to Uber many, many times,” she told reporters. She’d found out about the “save Uber” campaign when an aide saw it online and alerted her.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.