Private car service Uber entered Washington, DC a month ago and has loaded up lots of local support. But now it has hit a regulatory traffic jam. Taxi Commissioner Ron Linton personally led a sting yesterday to bust one of its drivers for trying to transport him within the district, following up on his declaration earlier this week that Uber is “illegal.”
Whether or not Uber is actually breaking any rules is still unclear. He hasn’t told the company anything directly, and he hasn’t responded to its requests for more information. He’s just talking to the media about the issue. That includes inviting The Washington Post and local blog DCist to personally witness his sting outside the Mayflower Hotel.
The sting involved Linton personally using Uber’s mobile application to order a sedan (from his DC office, apparently). It arrived as scheduled, and took him to the Mayflower Hotel. Then, Linton’s Taxi Commissioner officers surrounded the car, handed the driver a variety of fines, and impounded the driver’s vehicle. “We did it,” Linton told a local ABC station later that day, “to send a message to drivers who are signing up with Uber that we are going to enforce our laws.”
Before I get into what the laws are or maybe aren’t, here’s sinister-looking meta angle to keep in mind, that I discovered when I wrote about the story earlier this week. Linton is an appointee of Mayor Vincent Gray, who gained office in part through the support of the taxi lobby — which, speaking of the law, broke it to give him donations. Seems like there could be a conflict of interest here.
Well, at least Uber has to follow the law. So what is it?
Linton, who doesn’t normally lead stings in person, told a local NBC outlet yesterday that “the primary issue is that they are trying to operate as a limousine company, using taxi rules, and it can’t be done.” Limos in DC decide on rates with passengers before the start of the trip, whereas the taxis charge based on distance (and a few other fees), based on Commission-set rates — at least according to him. So Uber would need to install meters like taxis in order to operate within district limits, or else change from its GPS-derived mileage charge to one-off negotiations with passengers?
Hold on, chapter 12.99 of the DC taxi regulations includes a section that defines sedans differently than regular limos:
Sedan – a for-hire vehicle designed to carry fewer than six (6) passengers, excluding the driver, which charges for service on the basis of time and mileage (effective May 1, 2008).
This line specifically says that sedans are able to charge taxi-style for their services, and indeed many of the non-Uber ones in operation already do this. How is Uber breaking the law in the way that Linton is describing above? Oh, and also, contrary to what you might think from Linton’s description, Uber doesn’t actually employee the drivers, it partners with existing, licensed drivers and companies.
The other part of Linton’s beef could be more of an issue for Uber. Some of its drivers are based in neighboring communities in Maryland and Virginia. While they can pick up passengers in the district, according to the existing regulations, they have to drop them off back in the state they came from. That was part of Linton’s sting: he ordered a Virginia-based driver to pick him up and drop him off within DC.
Given all these regulations, what had Uber done to try to make sure it was following them before it entered the market? It approached the taxi commission and spoke with lower level representatives, Uber DC head Rachel Holt told me earlier this week, and had launched believing that it was in the clear.
But the company is speaking up more and more strongly as Linton has increased his attacks. “It’s out of turn for a city official to call an entity out for violating the law,” chief executive Travis Kalanick told me yesterday, “without some sort of notice or specification of which law that entity is breaking.”
The bigger picture here is that it is the Taxi Commission’s stated mission to provide a structure for the best transportation options possible for anyone in DC. They don’t purely exist to enforce What The Law Says Today. In fact, looking at its mission statement, you’d think that Linton would be going out of his way to help Uber operate (bolding mine):
The mission of the DC Taxicab Commission is to provide the citizens of the District of Columbia and its visitors a safe, comfortable, efficient and affordable taxicab experience in well-equipped vehicles operated by highly qualified individuals who have knowledge of the District’s streets, boundaries, history and tourist destinations, as well as the basic tenets of high quality customer service. At the same time, the Commission strives to provide taxicab owners and operators with a system of rules and regulations that are fair and transparent and that allow for technological advancements to be introduced to the industry and for properly qualified individuals to participate in the industry.
The most grating part about the situation is that Linton and his commission, beyond failing to explain which rules are being broken by Uber, has the mission of making companies like it successful in DC through creating and changing existing regulations.
Like I mentioned before, the whole thing looks exactly like cronyism. DC, which Congress has perenially denied from having any federal representation, has been left to figure things out on its own. The result has been a particularly unique pile-up of rules, and a particularly nice place for inside interests to develop their own little self-serving setups free of much oversight (as former mayor Adrian Fenty and his team recently learned the hard way when they tried to overhaul various parts of the city government).
Linton’s approach, which may have been business as usual to him considering his long experience on the local scene, is also looking more ironic by the day when you consider that Mayor Gray has been trying to tout himself as a pro-technology leader who supports the local startup scene.
The situation is at least headed towards some more clarity. Linton said last night that he’s turning the matter over to the city attorney general.
[Top photo of the sting via DCist. Linton is on the far right.]