Greater Greater Washington

Illegal or not, on-demand car service Uber is good for DC

New car service Uber launched in DC in December, but has already run afoul of the Taxi Commission. Whether they're doing anything illegal is unclear, but the service is definitely good for transportation in DC.


Photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

Uber allows people to book a trip in a for-hire car, without an advance reservation, using a mobile app. It offers an alternative to current taxis, but doesn't compete directly for the vast majority of taxi rides because it costs significantly more than a cab, particularly for short trips.

To say that Uber competes with cabs is like saying McDonalds competes with Bourbon Steak because they both serve hamburgers.

The concept is a positive step for an urban DC. It offers yet another transportation option besides driving a personal car. Transit isn't for everyone all the time, and if Uber lets a transit skeptic leave the car at home or get rid of it altogether, it's a big win.

What's more, Uber can actually improve the efficiency of "black cars," the for-hire sedans which spend a large portion of the day idling. While the Uber founder says they discourage drivers from accepting Uber trips while they are on a job, it is distinctly feasible to do with their system.

I used to live in Foggy Bottom, and when major summits came to town, the neighborhood would be covered with Town Cars and Tahoes with Virginia "For Hire" license plates. With the IMF, World Bank, and numerous upscale hotels in the area, the vehicles would sit idling all over Foggy Bottom and the West End. The cars often took up parking spaces for hours, double parking at times.

Uber gives them the ability to provide some trips instead of blocking lanes of traffic and every conceivable parking space. This would be good for everyone.

Ironically, the limousine industry should be the one that is more concerned about Uber. Their business is likely to change as long is Uber is around. If someone can book a black car on-demand, pay a mileage-based rate, and then book another one for a return trip, without having to pay for time in between, why, except for the most demanding situations, would anyone bother to hire a car service?

What's more, the taxi industry actually stands to benefit from the presence of Uber. At peak times, such as New Years' Eve, there are not enough cabs to go around, period. Uber maintains their reliability by using "surge pricing" to price out many people and find those customers who are desperate, or well heeled, enough to pay for that reliability.

At high traffic times, Uber takes some people who would have otherwise tried to hail a cab, leaving fewer people to fight over the limited cab supply, and ultimately making traveling by taxi cab easier and more reliable.

Lawyers, Uber, cabbies, the Taxi Commission, and possibly DC councilmembers will debate the legality of Uber's operation in coming weeks. Residents should hope they come to a conclusion that lets the service, and others like it, keep running.

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Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 

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If the black cars are sittng around idling in the west end, it is because they are on the clock. They aren't going to be picking up clients.

The "surge pricing" turned into a PR fiasco for Uber. As with all pricing, information matters. Even super-sophicated drunks with cell phone get screwed with that.

Given how often my GF begs me to take a cab, there is clearly a market for a more upscale transit option.

by charlie on Jan 12, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport

I have no issue with an on-demand car service in DC, but it appears that Uber needs to work on informing their customers regarding the surge pricing. That link to the CNet article discusses the huge, generally unannounced-at-purchase premiums that customers ran into on NYE. I believe DCist had a story on it last week, too. Having your smartphone app default to NOT providing those warnings/status updates during surge pricing is uber-sketchy.

Surge pricing, good. Ineffectively communicating surge pricing at the moment of purchase, especially to first-time customers, not so good.

by worthing on Jan 12, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

"What's more, the taxi industry actually stands to benefit from the presence of Uber..."

Huh? How? You certainly didn't explain any benefit to the taxi industry -- perhaps to taxi riders, but to drivers and fleet owners?

You may be correct in pointing out that Uber is more of a threat to the limo industry, than the taxi industry, but I see no way this benefits taxis.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 12, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

Legitimate question (looking for an answer): What's the advantage of using Uber over a calling dispatch for a taxi in Arlington (where taxi dispatch is great), except on occasions like New Years Eve?

Red Top is usually at my house within 5–10 minutes of calling, and it's half the price. They also have an iPhone app (in Taxi Magic)

by Joey on Jan 12, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport

The surge pricing was as clearly laid out as possible. You knew what you were getting into, unless you were drunk, and then you were still informed, multiple times that surge pricing was in effect. If you were a subscriber, you were informed days before NYE... People knew it was going to be expensive, and some people were, and will continue to be, willing to pay for it... Get over the surge pricing model already, and hail yourself a taxi.

by @SamuelMoore on Jan 12, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

I fear that Mayor Gray's response will be to do the bidding of the DC taxi drivers "uber" Alles!

by bert on Jan 12, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

Uber definitely competes with cabs. But the city isn't obligated to regulate everything that competes with cabs; just cabs themselves. Buses, Metro, personal driving, walking, Amtrak, MARC ... it all competes with cabs, but you don't see Linton wanting to regulate them.

by Tim on Jan 12, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

@worthing: The surge pricing was quite announced. When you go to call the car on your phone, it warns you anytime there's a surge, with a window that says something like "Prices are current 6.5x their normal level," and asks if you want to continue.

by Tim on Jan 12, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

That's rather the point. They throw as much information out as possible, and people don't pay attention. The result -- bad PR. IF they aren't paying attention to the surge pricing it is just expensive.

I don't see the advantage Red Top in Arlington. DC maybe. The goal isn't taxi replacement, just car service replacement.

by charlie on Jan 12, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

Even if it is competition and takes away from cab revenue, isn't that a good thing? If cabs are better, faster and cheaper than Uber cars, won't people use them instead of paying a premium for an Uber?

DC cab drivers don't follow rules - if they did, I wouldn't need Uber. I've been stranded around Dupont or Columbia Heights a number of times when a cab driver refused to take me to Ballston (which really isn't even that far away). I also don't want to deal with a half broken car, a driver that can barely speak English, or someone that tries to take advantage of me by going "his" way home.

Also - why should I carry around wads of 20s? This is the 21st century. When I go to NYC for work, I can hop in any cab knowing that it has a CC machine. That's simply not the case here.

Uber is far more convenient and pleasant - if DC cabs can't handle the "competition" they should focus on making their service better.

by Ruben on Jan 12, 2012 2:14 pm • linkreport

The surge pricing was as clearly laid out as possible.

Except for the fact that you didn't know what your price was going to be, even approximately. "This trip will cost $100" is how you decide whether to book plane tickets, not, "plane tickets are 5x their normal price, and we'll charge you after you deplane."

Their algorithms also had no backstop, unlike the rest of the travel industry, where one accepts that at ultra-peak periods, there will be a shortage and even the expensive services will be doled out by the luck of the draw.

by JustMe on Jan 12, 2012 2:22 pm • linkreport

@Tim: So I've read, but I've also read numerous accounts that the app did not default to announcing that for some users. Doing a little digging, I found that one of Uber's engineers has confirmed that there were a few conditions they didn't expect that led to app errors: http://startingup.me/post/15141134089/redesigning-the-uber-surge-pricing-screen#comment-398441274

But, to their credit, it does sound like Uber was going through their audit logs and refunding customers who did get hosed. So perhaps we're just looking at some code problems rather than a devious "tricked you, drunky" scheme.

by worthing on Jan 12, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport

Anything that puts the current set of DC taxis out of business is fine by me. Burn the current shit-show to the ground, and let's start over. As someone said upthread, in Arlington you can get a Red Top cab in 5-10 minutes with an iPhone app. In DC, unless you're in one of the "nightclub districts" you're lucky if anyone shows up ever.

How is it a compelling government interest to protect the jobs of these guys, 90% of whom aren't even DC citizens?

by oboe on Jan 12, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

This is an Amtrak Acela argument. Acela is great for those who can afford it. Otherwise, we'll get on a metroliner.

On demand car service is good for those in DC who can afford it. Or we'll get in a taxi.

BTW, I do believe that a number of these sedans we see are actually on the clock and not riding around looking for passengers.

by HogWash on Jan 12, 2012 3:56 pm • linkreport

Here is a long (1hr 20min) interview with (one of) the founder(s) of Uber. They don't start talking about Uber itself until about halfway in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=550X5OZVk7Y

by thm on Jan 12, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

It's not that I'm against this but I'm kind of confused as to what makes these things not a taxi. You just can't flag one down? Does that mean I can run a taxi service or "for-hire car" service as long as people just call me for rides. The problem isn't neccesarily this service but the president it sets if you allow it. I could make a free phone app called need a ride that lets you hail "for-hire cars" electronically that anyone could have access to. You could soon have an entire fleet of unregulated hacks. Where exactly does the author of this article propose drawing the line? I really don't see how this could be legit without opening you up to scenario like I just explained.

by Doug on Jan 12, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

err... precedent rather

by Doug on Jan 12, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

@Doug

Uber cars are still licensed and regulated by the commission, they are just regulated as for-hire cars rather than taxis. This means they can't pick up street hails but can pick you up if you call them.

You still can't just call yourself a taxi and start picking up street hails and calls.

by MLD on Jan 12, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

@Doug

The cars and drivers are not unregulated, they're all regulated already as for-hire livery drivers in this region.

by Alex B. on Jan 12, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

Doug -- it's already the case, though, that you can call for a limo/Carey car to take you to the airport (which don't have meters or other cab trappings), so it seems like a technical question of whether Uber should be regulated like a taxi or like those other car services.

by Jacques on Jan 12, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

"How is it a compelling government interest to protect the jobs of these guys, 90% of whom aren't even DC citizens?"

The adjective "DC" before "citizens" is probably superfluous.

by Bob on Jan 12, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

They are UberCrooks!

by Steve on Jan 12, 2012 9:11 pm • linkreport

Uber definitely competes with cabs. But the city isn't obligated to regulate everything that competes with cabs; just cabs themselves. Buses, Metro, personal driving, walking, Amtrak, MARC ... it all competes with cabs, but you don't see Linton wanting to regulate them.

The city isn't even really obligated to regulate cabs. Residents would be better off if they did less regulation of cabs. Buses, Metro, personal driving, Amtrak, MARC, and even walking are actually regulated, too (stop signs, anyone?)

Where exactly does the author of this article propose drawing the line? I really don't see how this could be legit without opening you up to scenario like I just explained.

This starts from the premise that existing regulation is good and anything that undermines it is not "legit."

by WRD on Jan 12, 2012 10:28 pm • linkreport

Uber cars, is one of the many problems for DC taxi drivers. I drive Taxi in DC. I am the first prius(hybrid) taxi owner. I am fan of a better service and accomodation for customers. I have no problem with others like Uber making money. As a result of Uber, limousines are competing for fares every where on the streets of DC so long as there is no hack inspector or cop. Just the other day, as the limo was droping a customer a customer in georgetown, he called the couple that were coming to my cab. When they ignored him he put his car on a reverse and tried to tell them he charges reasonable price. Any ways they got in my cab and told me what was going on. This is now a daily occurence, specially friday and saturday nights. Of course they are competing with taxis. If they are regulated by DC taxi commission, then i might buy me a black car and get in this lucrative business where one can charge what ever. Some of you do complain that we taxi drivers are nasty and all that but you have no clue as to what type of problems we face. How ever checked how many taxi drivers get killed, attacked, robbed and assaulted, not to include the number of people who run away, hide or cheat to avoid paying their far. As if we don't have enough problem to deal with, the DC government has neglected penalizing illicit taxi drivers and limousine drivers, MD and VA taxi drivers who compete for fares on the streets of Washington. Then it is us who get blamed for any type of abuse on the customer. Out of state companies purposely use similar taxi colors and logo so that their drivers could cheat or pick a fare in DC. The most reasonable solution that is also environmentally friendly would have been to establish a tristate reciprocity agreement where DC, MD and Virginia taxis could pick any where. Since the likelyhood of reciprocity agreement is slim to none, law enforcement activity to minimize the problem is feasible. Instead, interest groups that are trying to benefit taxi moguls are using public relations tactic to tarnish taxi drivers by using the most agressive PR style. A taxi medallion in NewYork costs up to a million dallars. Those taxi moguls who have seen the growth of DC are seriously eying to take over the taxi bussiness. They have tried many ways and failed. Now they seem to have succeeded with their PR campaign. We, the DC taxi drivers have gone through years of hard life. This city has improved and we have played our part in the change by enduring the most brutal types of crimes and a uses. Now. it is time to get rid of us or make us vulnerable to the most severe type of exploitation. Kudos to FBI that mjor efforts by corrupt people to take over the industry had been foiled and hopefully FBI will save us again.

by Gedle on Jan 13, 2012 12:26 am • linkreport

In Newyork I had french fries thrown at my face by a lunatic cab xdriver. In Boston I had a cab driver who throw cofee at my face, as a result I hate cab drivers. DC taxi drivers are very polite. Here and there they tried to cheat me but I could see that these guys drink lots of coffee to stay awake because they work like slaves to get ends meet. I would never drive cab in a million years. I would never look down on these guys either. Some of you really need to tone down. I feel that there is more to be done by the taxi officials that regulate the rates. While I believe 44% rate increase is too high, these guys need some type of rate adjustment.

by Joseph Cambell on Jan 13, 2012 12:51 am • linkreport

I've never understood the hate people have for cabbies here.

In 20 years, I've had one bad experience -- a cabbie that refused to take me back to Virginia.

Strikes me as a oversupply problem. Too many cabbies in a few corridors, and not enough elsewhere.

by charlie on Jan 13, 2012 8:08 am • linkreport

I have to say that I've never had a bad cab experience, except for Boston where you pay a ridiculous amount of money for a cab ride.

However, cracking down on Uber just sounds like a bunch of rent-seeking on the part of cab drivers.

by JustMe on Jan 13, 2012 9:37 am • linkreport

Here's the bottom line on DC Taxis and the role of the DC Taxicab commission. The job of the taxicab commission is to represent the interests of DC residents. The sole responsibility when it comes to the rights of taxicab drivers is to ensure that there is some decent level of taxicab service maintained for DC residents. For all the bitching and moaning that DC taxicab drivers do about DC's regulatory environment, if you want to put it into perspective, ask them about MD or VA sometime. It's an order of magnitude more restrictive.

All of the arguments that "DC cab drivers will be driven out of business" or that "DC cab drivers have families" or that "many immigrants get a start driving cabs" is irrelevant.

The only question that is relevant is "If we impose regulation X, will a DC resident be able to get a cab cheaper/more frequently/etc..." DC cab service is the shittiest of the three regional jurisdictions, and MD/VA cab drivers actually *live* in MD/VA.

DC cab service is so shitty because of regulatory capture: the DC government is small enough that a well-organized special interest like the cab driver lobby can buy it off. Not so in MD/VA.

by oboe on Jan 13, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

I'm stunned at folks who claim never to have had a bad cab experience in DC. Though I've had *fewer* bad cab experiences than women I know. Many DC cabbies seem to be more prone to push women around than men.

by oboe on Jan 13, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

I think Uber is good for DC, don't the politicians have better things to do?

by Mark on Jan 13, 2012 5:13 pm • linkreport

Some of you do complain that we taxi drivers are nasty and all that but you have no clue as to what type of problems we face.

I do want to go out of my way to be callous.

I don't have a clue what your problems are and I don't care.

I care about service and price.

Owners of restaurants, liquor stores, meter maids, and other professions all face difficulties. They aren't my problem. This is all irrelevant when considering the question of whether or not allowing Uber is good public policy.

None of the problems of taxi drivers change the fact that DC's regulatory scheme is bad for taxi cab riders.

by WRD on Jan 13, 2012 10:28 pm • linkreport

There is this cool technology which has been around for awhile that allows you to enter a 10-digit code and you are connected to a company that inputs your exact location and sends your location to the closest taxicabs determined by GPS. The service does not cost you anything and you only pay the fare rate set by the local government. The technology is called a phone and the same computer-aided dispatch systems the taxi companies have been using for years.

by Dan Rogers on Jan 27, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

Dan the problem is that taxis are nototrious for not showing up. I haven't had one show up for a dispatched call in about a decade. Granted I've only tried once every year but it wasn't peak time and when I say they didn't show up I mean at all for hours.

I would use this service if I hadn't learned to call friends or just lug my luggage onto the bus and trains. As long as they are guaranteed to actually show up to ALL areas of DC I would have no problem forking over the money to make it to a red eye on time and let my friends stay warm and cozy in their beds.

by Tracey on Apr 11, 2012 10:13 am • linkreport

I used Uber in NYC recently while visiting, and am glad it is available here in DC. Can't wait to use it when I travel to other cities as well. Although getting a taxi has improved for people of color when you are just standing outside. I believe Uber will fill gaps, particularly at times when cabs are at a premium. The wait time is low, and who can complain about walking out and getting into a waiting vehicle and going directly to your destination without having to open your wallet or purse? Not me.

by Kromeklia on Apr 26, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

Important : it is illegal to operate with out advance booking or information with for hire tag in Virginia, uber device do not prompt as requeried , uber system work same as taxi tecnology which consider illegal with "for hire" tag..

by irfan on Aug 25, 2013 7:37 pm • linkreport

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