[Updated] The Uber Conundrum

Photo courtesy of danpeerflix
I’m coming to get ya @patdryburgh cc @uber
courtesy of danpeerflix

Late yesterday, in an email to their customers, Uber’s DC operations group sounded the alarm about the Taxicab Modernization Act that is before the Council today.  The email read, in part, “The Council’s intention is to prevent Uber from being a viable alternative to taxis by enacting a price floor to set Uber’s minimum fare at today’s rates and no less than 5 times a taxi’s minimum fare.”  The language that has Uber riled up here has to do with a new class of taxi service in DC, the sort that Uber provides.  

The new sedan service is designed to build a place for companies like Uber to operate free from intervention from the DC Taxicab Commission’s regulations, which would require the cars have metering systems, GPS tracking, and those godawful advertising systems like you see in New York Cabs, amongst other things. So long as they were to abide by an initial minimum fare that was 5 times the minimum fare of the taxi system, Uber would get to stand free and clear of the taxi system.

One small problem. Uber wants to charge less than their current $15 minimum for their new UberX service which is designed to send less luxurious vehicles (hybrid cars, in fact) to pick you up throughout the city.  This new law would torpedo their plans to charge customers less for the new hybrid service.

Twitter was ablaze with criticism for the council late last night from the myopic twit set, though much of the criticism was actually more of a criticism of the outsized power granted to the DC Taxicab lobby by their donations to local politicos, which have allowed the system to develop as it has. DC Cabs are notorious for the poor quality of their service amongst other misdeeds. Between cabs in poor shape (my favorite DC Cab story happened yesterday, when I had to dodge a headlight assembly that fell off a silver cab.) and service being spotty, the market for a car service that does the two basic services of coming when called and accepting modern forms of payment would have an instant market advantage.

Since last night, several council members have reported being “inundated” with constituent email concerning the bill, and it seems the Council is quick to respond when what remains of their public good will is threatened by an apparent attack on a popular service.  Councilmember Jack Evans reported in this morning’s hearing that he had received over 5,000 emails on the issue overnight, and introduced an amendment to the Modernization Act to strip the 5x minimum fare provision from the law.

In protest, Uber released a statement this morning that they would lower their minimum fare to $12 for the month of July, and CEO Travis Kalanick has published a letter to the council decrying their actions, and making a direct ask of the council: “Take the ‘Minimum Fare’ language out of the amendment. It’s that simple. Doing so shows the tech community in DC that you support innovative, burgeoning technologies in the face of special interests. It shows your constituents that you’ll put people and progress above politics.”

The hearing this morning may result in the Uber language to the Taxicab Modernization bill being removed until new hearings can be held on the matter in November, but it’s not yet clear what’s going to happen. Uber encouraged its customers to write to their council members to address the issue, it may not yet be too late.

Update, 10:20am: According to the Post’s Tim Craig, the Uber Amendment has been stricken until separate hearings can be held in November.

Update, 10:35am: If the Uber Amendment has been stricken from the taxicab bill, and will undergo separate hearings in the Fall, is Uber operating under their existing legal truce with the DCTC? Can they roll out UberX now without risking the wrath of the council come the Fall? There’s a lot of questions here. Why the Evans Amendment to strip the Price Floor provision of the amendment was not enacted with the Uber Amendment is another good question to be asking at this point.

I live and work in the District of Columbia. I write at We Love DC, a blog I helped start, I work at Technolutionary, a company I helped start, and I’m happy doing both. I enjoy watching baseball, cooking, and gardening. I grow a mean pepper, keep a clean scorebook, and wash the dishes when I’m done. Read Why I Love DC.

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3 thoughts on “[Updated] The Uber Conundrum

  1. Thanks, Tom. This issue popped up while I was on the road. I spent some time last night trying to sort it out and went to bed slightly confused. Thanks to this post I am no longer confused.

  2. Something is not right here. Either Cheh is not being honest in saying she’s worked with Uber on this language; or Uber backed out, with no warning, of agreeing to her amendment language. My gut is telling me Uber backed out at the last minute; or they warned Cheh that they were backing out and she didn’t take them seriously. I’d be interested to know what really happened behind the scenes.

  3. Uber has said that they weren’t made aware of the language of the “compromise” that was made until late yesterday, and may have backed out of the deal based on the language that was negotiated in their absence.