D.C. Council Moves Closer to Making Uber Street Legal, But Uber's Not Happy About It

Photo by Dan Macy

When the D.C. Council votes tomorrow on a bill overhauling the regulation and operation of the District's 6,500 taxicabs, Councilmember Mary Cheh intends to offer an amendment intended to ease things for a company that has been nagging at the side of D.C.'s livery industry for several months.

Part of Cheh's amendment bill addresses the governance of "sedan-class" vehicles—livery operations that are more than a taxi, but less than a full-service limousine. Specifically, the amendment would smooth things out between the D.C. Taxicab Commission and Uber, the smartphone app that hires upscale black cars for passengers looking for something more luxurious than a cab to get around town in a pinch.

But Uber's pricing model—a $7 base fare plus $3.25 for each mile traveled and 75 cents for each minute a car is hired—is out-of-sync with the DCTC's approved meter rates, a point of contention that erupted in January when the commission's chairman, Ron Linton, conducted a "sting" on an unwitting Uber driver. And its arbitrary nature has sparked worries that Uber, in setting its own rates, could potentially undercut the District's metered cabs.

The text of Cheh's amendment, which was shared with DCist by a Council aide, offers several rule changes that would stabilize livery sedan operations. In the draft amendment, Uber is mentioned once in a heading.

The most important part of the Uber amendment states that the minimum fare in a sedan-class vehicle be five times the $3 drop rate charged by metered cabs. As it happens, Uber's minimum fare is $15. The amendment also pushes livery sedan companies, especially those that book passengers through mobile applications, to offer an estimated fare before a passenger enters the vehicle. Uber has also been flagged for only sending its customers receipts after a ride is finished.

If Cheh's amendment passes, companies that comply with its provisions would be exempted from the DCTC's oversight. In a brief phone interview, Linton said he did not view this amendment as an issue specific to Uber. "From our standpoint the bill is dealing with a certain class called 'sedan class,' " he said. "We're working out appropriate language that makes it possible and protects the consumer."

While Uber is mentioned only once in the draft amendment as a section header, a memorandum Cheh—who chairs the Council's Environment, Public Works and Transportation Committee—circulated with her Council colleagues explains in details concerns presented by Uber. Among those concerns are the ability to operate without regulation from the DCTC and to charge substantially higher prices than regular cabs while still operating on a fare schedule based on time and distance.

Like the amendment, Cheh's memo seems to put Uber in a larger class of sedan services. But for practical matters, Uber is in a league by itself. Limos.com, a competing company that plans to roll out a D.C.-specific service later this summer, presents its customers with estimated fares before rides are booked.

But Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in an email to his customers today that the company does not want to see a pricing floor implemented. Kalanick argues that the amendment would block Uber's latest announced product, a discounted service that hails less luxurious cars. In his email, Kalanick calls the amendment a giveaway to the District's cab industry.

[T]hey are handicapping a reliable, high quality transportation alternative so that Uber cannot offer a high quality service at the best possible price. It was hard for us to believe that an elected body would choose to keep prices of a transportation service artificially high—but the goal is essentially to protect a taxi industry that has significant experience in influencing local politicians.
Through a spokesman, Cheh said the amendment was hammered out by every interested stakeholder: "We worked with Uber and all the parties. Our intention was to make it so that Uber could continue to operate and we think we have that in this amendment."

Besides Uber, Cheh's amendment also focuses on cabs' fuel emissions, passenger complaints and the distribution or taxicabs across the city.

Cheh's amendment:
2012.07.10 Taxi Amendments

Cheh's memo:
Memo to Members July 9

Additional reporting by Martin Austermuhle

Contact the author of this article or email tips@dcist.com with further questions, comments or tips.
By Benjamin R. Freed in News on July 9, 2012 5:15 PM
  • d.c. taxicab commission
  • mary cheh
  • ron linton
  • sedan class
  • towncar
  • uber

Comments [rss]

  • dan_in_dc

    I learned a new phrase " Intrusive Destructiveness" which well describes the City Council and it's excessive meddling and overkill. How it makes mountains out of mole hills, and clutters the city, congests the streets, and makes life in the District infuriating, all while moving money from the people to the corporations.. The poor beleaguered taxi industry has been  target of their "intrusive destructiveness" for years now. They have cut the income of the drivers by 1/3, and eliminated multiple fares with the meter, replacing the simple zone system,, maknig a mountain out of a mole hill. So only a few years later, Fenty's meter is being replaced by another meter, a clear violation of the drivers privacy with it's GPS. Why didn't they wait three years, not to waste the money! .And the drivers are being shaken down, and the public will bear the costs.  So doesn't anyone see the corruption of Mayor Gray. the bill wasn't even passed and he announces the $35 million  contract for another meter,, already!,, He takes money form the people and hands it to the corporations! We now have the destruction of the taxi industry for no reason requiring this interference. No multiple fares reduces service, reduces income and wastes fuel, increases pollution for NOTHING!.With the help of the DC government, Emporer Adrienne, corrupt Mayor Gray, and  intrusive  city council,,  a simple short  cab  ride from Union Station to very nearby Brooklandt, hat was $4.00 is now $13.00. But of course a city council determined to destroy will also require the 6500 cabs to be repainted the same color. A solution where no problem exists, but they can intrude and make DC a lot uglier! More pollutin and expense over NOTHING! So  look at who is really hurt by this,,cab drivers who send part of their income back to the families in the home country and  poor dc residents  who are dependant on cabs. Take their money , and give it to the corporations. People like the wealthy city council members tool around in leased SUV"s at our expense, how would they ever know what it is like to be poor. You and I have  cars, right..
    Thirty five million dollars could probably buy an entire new fleet of cabs for DC,, multi colors, electric, non polluting, spanking new. What would ever be good enough for this city council??It's us ,, the reidents of Dc that are in Jeopardy,, get rid of the council, form a democratic legislature, a constituent assembly where you will have a voice, and 13 inbred hacks cannot destroy the quality of life in DC. "Taxation Without Representation" what an embarrassing joke.. Make your own democracy!   

  • Seth Halpern

    Am I correct that Congress could overturn this move should the City Council impugn themselves further with this anti-competitive, anti-business, anti-consumer act? Residents of DC should consider the contingencies.

  • GentrifierNumber6

    Seriously, whenever people talk about District Home Rule I have a hard time getting exercised about it...for this very reason. Congress can't be worse...and this is why we should work the whole thing out by retroceding most of the District to Maryland.

  • The_Dash

    Just wait until Uber tries to open a food truck.

  • Shiba Fussa

    This is why this city is not a business friendly city.

  • Ollie Pooeater

     Because we're all suckers and we voted for Vincent Gray because Fenty was such a meanie.

  • Ollie Pooeater

    Next time you talk to a friend who doesn't vote, or dismisses a new candidate because of lack of experience, remember what experience gets you in DC. 

  • Joe Flood

    Does the City Council exist to serve residents or a corrupt taxi industry? Because if the Council was really here for us, it would encourage new services like Uber instead of trying to drive them out of business with rules and regulations. 

    And to the local taxi industry: you suck. Why don't you compete with a better product instead of using legislation to discourage competitors?

  • Grimnur

    When I can hail a cab from my phone (app, phone call, smoke signal, whatever) and actually have some certainty that the cab will actually arrive within an hour, or ever, then I will consider the taxi cab industry's concerns.

  • Carlos Robles

     this works great in Virginia with Taxi Magic, and no extra fee for pickup. But in DC I think only one company "uses" it and they barely EVER show up when you book it. DC's reluctance to modernize their fleet is mind boggling.

  • ad_mic

    Well one potential side effect doesn't seem too tough to see - if this passes the DC cabs will want all future fare hikes pushed through the drop fare, since it will increase the competition's minimum fee 5x whatever their increase is. 

  • Sgt_HulkasToe

    What's not really talked about here is that Uber is launching a hybrid car service around the country and ideally in the District that would only be about 15-20% more than a cab, as opposed to 40% for regular Uber black cars.  Because the fare would be lower than 5X the metered cabs, they wouldn't be able to do it.

    In other cities, I'd feel for the cabbies and let Uber just run the cars for when people have some extra dough.  However cabs in DC are so terrible and have enjoyed their profits while giving such terrible service, I'm all about Uber eating their lunch.  These chumps need to realize that school is in session. 

    E-mail or call your CM.  Let them know you're out there. 

  • kken

    I called all the offices of the CM aholes. I actually got a live person at Graham's office who, when I told him I used to be a Ward 1 resident (true) but was now a Silver Spring resident because I refuse to live in DC because how fucked up the local government is (also true, fuck DCRA), he flat out told me Jim Graham does not care about anyone who is not a Ward 1 resident.

  • alexalexalexalexalex

    As a DC taxpayer I resent you wasting my concilmember's time. Please stick to calling your own representatives from now on. Thanks.

  • SpeakSoftlyCarryABigStick

    You mean an elected representative, charged with representing his constituents, and not people who live outside not only his ward, but also his state, won't take the time to listen to non-constituents? Shocking. I guess that's what we get for living in a democratically elected republic.

    And if you missed the point in all that sarcasm: You have your own representatives for where you live; you should be contacting them. That's the way the system works.

  • r_madd

    Here's the link to Uber's blog post on the subject:

    Yes, write or call to tell the council who they are really supposed to be working for.

  • Over the River

    "A cottager and his wife had a Hen that laid a golden egg every day. They supposed that the Hen must contain a great lump of gold in its inside, and in order to get the gold they killed it. Having done so, they found to their surprise that the Hen differed in no respect from their other hens. The foolish pair, thus hoping to become rich all at once, deprived themselves of the gain of which they were assured day by day."

  • Ryan Walsh

     I don't think anyone is arguing Uber doesn't want to/shouldn't be regulated but the amendment sets a price floor for the services of a private company thereby protecting the interests of an industry that is rife with corruption that welds substantial political influence.

    It gives DC's cabs no incentive to improve their terrible service, discourages companies like Uber from innovating, and does nothing to protect the consumer. It is in Uber's best interest to be as customer friendly and transparent in their pricing as possible. It's what makes them profitable.

  • Carlos Robles

    How is it acceptable for the government to protect such a subpar service by making it illegal for the competing service to lower its prices from an ALREADY higher rate and then call it "protecting the consumer" This enrages me.

    If you want to try Uber out for yourself join using this link and you will get a $10 credit on your account:


  • kken

    Fuck the DC Taxi Cab Commission, Fuck Mary Cheh, and fuck this piece of shit legislation.

    If this passes, I see grounds for a lawsuit from Uber. I took my first Uber ride this past weekend and it was like the limo scene in "21 Jump Street"... I felt like there doves flying out when I exited the roomy, air-conditioned car.

    The DC Taxi Cab Commission puts out a very sub-standard product for the price they charge. To legislate a competitor that puts out a superior product at a lower price is fucking bullshit.

    Some District junk needs to get punched if this shit passes tomorrow.

  • gtsix

    I don't get the fuss.  This allows for a sedan level regulation... which is what Uber wants.  Why so shangry?  They are not a cab, they are not a limo... this gives them a new class of operation

    And it appears from the NYC link that Uber may not be operating according to NYC taxi/limo regulations either.... so is the fuss that Uber just doesn't want to be regulated?  That they do want to undercut the taxi industry?

  • Ryan Abell

    When I have a competitor undercutting my rates in my own business.  I don't ask the government to regulate and I don't lower my rate.  I just provide a better service and compete that way.

  • r_madd

     Uber doesn't undercut taxicabs.  Currently, taxicabs offer inconsistent service, circuitous routes, rattletrap cars and maniacal drivers.  Uber offers prompt service, direct routes, comfortable cars and courteous drivers. Uber currently costs a little more for one or two riders, so customers pay extra for good service.

  • writtenly

    and air conditioning.

  • Over the River

    Ergo, Über must be stopped.

  • Carlos Robles

     You must be a taxi driver.

  • Over the River

    Or has never ridden in a DC Cab.

  • awshux

    The regulation includes anti-competitive pricing - 5x the flag drop doesn't allow Uber, or anyone else to introduce lower price options. Pressure on the taxi companies to improve service would be limited, and the lack of service that most of the city faces wouldn't get addressed. And this is to protect an industry that is loathed by pretty much everyone for poor response, dirty cars, dangerous driving, and refusing to take passengers where they want to go.

  • awshux

    I really want someone to look up how much Cheh received from the taxi industry last election.  She took Tommy's spot on transportation committee, and now we see anti-competitive legislation like this.  Targeting a single company is wrong, especially one that is disrupting one of DC's most corrupt industry.

  • Jaynuze

    I just want to make sure I'm understanding this correctly ... in all seriousness. Uber provides a service, DC Taxi Cab Commission does not like the fact that it is cutting in on its business, Council proposed legislature to intervene? If that is correct, why is the council even allowed to weigh in on this ... isn't this a free market?

  • SpeakSoftlyCarryABigStick

    First, the DC Taxi Cab Commission isn't a business. It's a public commission whose job is to regulate the taxi industry in the city. There's no cutting into here.  

    Second, the Commission does have a point that Uber is technically violating the law. Personally I think it's cutting hairs, but a strict but honest reading of the law will get you there.  So the law should be updated.

    Third, taxis are regulated in every major city in this country. Mainly it's to make sure the taxis are available for everyone to use.  Personally, I wish the Council would take an even more active hand in regulating the cabs, because if what we have is the product of a "free market," please sign me up for one of Uncle Joe's 5 Year Plans. Can't be any worse.

  • beoth

    But Uber isn't a taxi service, its a car service. The difference being that you cannot hail an Uber car on the street.

  • Lester Jenkins

    I disagree... Taxis are regulated so they are safe (in theory), and so that when you hail one, you

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