Startup Tries To Revolutionize NYC Taxi-Hailing, Ends Up Offering Free Rides

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 5 2012 10:19 AM

Uber Tries To Revolutionize NYC Taxi-Hailing, Ends Up Offering Free Rides

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Uber's plan to let New Yorkers hail a cab via their smartphones has yet to receive a green light from regulators.

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

In New York City, you aren't allowed to call a cab to come pick you up. Who do you think you are, Donald Trump? No, if you want a ride in a yellow taxi, you have to stand out there on the street and hail one like everybody else.

Enter Uber, a bright-eyed San Francisco tech startup on a mission to help young whippersnappers with fancypants smartphones get home from the bar at 2 a.m.—whoops, this is New York, make that 4 a.m.—in style. Uber's mobile app tells you where the nearest ride is, then lets you arrange for it to swing by and give you a lift. In other cities, that ride is usually a private car far spiffier than your average Taurus—often a Mercedes or a luxury SUV. But in New York, Uber is partnering with yellow cab drivers for a service that officially launched this morning.

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"For the first time in decades, New Yorkers will be able to request a taxi without going out on the street," Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber's new New York service told me via email. The benefits, he said, will include "better accessibility in the outer-boroughs (and) more reliability in areas and neighborhoods where taxis don't normally travel."

Not so fast. Just last night, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission balked at approving the service, citing the city's laws against pre-arranged cab rides. The rule is that taxi drivers can't refuse a ride to some who flags them down on the street just because they're on their way to pick up someone else.

New York isn't the first city to put up barriers to Uber's service. Washington, D.C.'s taxicab commission has cracked down on Uber's private-car service, and Denver's public utilities commission is "looking into Uber's operations" to see if it violates local statutes. Massachusetts, after briefly banning the service over its GPS metering service, has relented and given it the green light.

Uber is confident that it can work with New York's commission as well. But in the meantime, rather than scrap the launch, the company has come up with an alternative: free taxi week! If it isn't allowed to charge customers, Uber reasons, it can at least give them a taste of the service in hopes that will pressure city officials to find a way through the regulatory roadblocks. From today until next Tuesday, its 100-odd drivers in the city are offering one free ride of $25 or less for every New Yorker. With that attitude, Uber just might win New Yorkers' cold, hard hearts after all.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.