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Opinion

Driving a Sedan Should Not Be A Crime

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Photo - Published: No Published Caption
Original: Greg Whitesell/Examiner

Taxi Cab drivers line up in front of Union Station as passengers board for the destinations on Tuesday, June 6, 2006 in Washington, DC.  The DC Taxicab Commission which is currently using a zone-based method of pricing, is considering whether or not to use a meter system.
Published: No Published Caption Original: Greg Whitesell/Examiner Taxi Cab drivers line up in front of Union Station as passengers board for the destinations on Tuesday, June 6, 2006 in Washington, DC. The DC Taxicab Commission which is currently using a zone-based method of pricing, is considering whether or not to use a meter system.
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Nearly everyone in Washington, D.C. who regularly uses taxis has wished for better service—too few take credit cards, drivers can be rude, they don’t come or go to certain places during certain times, and let’s just say cleanliness is often an issue.  In fact, 94 percent of D.C. residents responding to a survey conducted last year by D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) said they would support any move by the city to improve cab service.  Unfortunately, the city is trying to make sedan and taxi service worse for consumers.

On Monday, the D.C. Transportation Committee, after several controversial attempts to enforce or change taxi, sedan, and limousine rules this year, is holding a hearing to consider new regulations in the city’s vehicle-for-hire industry.  But government intervention in transportation is the root of the problem.  Entrepreneurs are waiting to offer customers competitive fares, clean cars and easy payment methods at all hours, but instead get burdensome regulations and harassment by district officials bent on protecting existing and politically connected cab companies from competition.

Take, for example, the outrageous “sting operation” conducted earlier this year by the Commission’s head Ron Linton. Linton targeted independent sedan drivers working with Uber.com, a technology company that operates in nearly 20 major cities and began service in D.C. this year.  Using text messaging and smart phone apps, Uber arranges car service between riders and drivers in the District and parts of Virginia and Maryland.

With enforcement agents and press in tow, however, Linton got a Virginia-based and Uber-associated driver to pick him up at a D.C. location and drop him off again in D.C.  Virginia and Maryland drivers are not supposed to provide service entirely within D.C. boundaries, which requires a separate D.C. sedan license.  The driver was fined and a message was sent to would-be transportation entrepreneurs:  Start a new business in Washington, D.C., and we will find a way to try to shut you down.   

Why did Ron Linton go after this independent sedan driver?  Because an existing cab company complained that Uber was taking away business from its own drivers. Instead of telling the cab company to find a way to compete with Uber, the Taxi Commission used its power to take out the competition. Even more outrageous is what Linton failed to mention to the press during his sting:  For nearly two years, D.C. has refused to let any new applicants take its taxi licensing exam and turned away sedan owners from Maryland and Virginia applying for the license the District says they need to pick up riders in D.C. Without the city council even passing a new law, the market for new transportation services has been locked up tight.

The result and the reason are clear: This illegal moratorium protects existing cabs from competition because the existing cab companies are an important constituency for some D.C. politicians and bureaucrats. That is not how government power is supposed to be used in the United States.  The U.S Constitution protects the right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government restraint, and consumers, not the government, should be deciding what companies best fit their needs.

The best people to decide whether Uber or other competitors to taxis should survive in the District are entrepreneurs and riders, not bureaucrats or entrenched operators that a vast majority of the public has said are providing mediocre service.

Councilmember Cheh publicly rebuked the Commission for its sting earlier this year, stating that instead of heavy-handed enforcement and fines, “a better approach would be to encourage innovation and work with Uber and other similar businesses.” Cheh is the chair of the committee meeting being held on Monday.  If she wants to encourage innovation, the solution is easy: get out of the way.

Larry Salzman is an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents entrepreneurs nationwide.

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