How do you turn a D.C. liberal into a libertarian for a day? Threaten to regulate his limousine service.
Yes, perhaps we jest, but how better to explain Tuesday's events before the D.C. Council?
Uber, a California-based company that provides limousine service at the tap of your smartphone's touch-screen, has been operating in D.C. for several months now. Its service is superb, its contracted drivers professional, its cars clean and attractive, and its prices relatively reasonable. Uber's smartphone app even tells you the name of your driver and the number of minutes until he arrives.
The company has weathered the harassment of regulators -- including a now-infamous "sting" by DC Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton in January -- and had hoped the D.C. Council would clear up any ambiguity about the company's legality. Unfortunately, lawmakers attempted to extract a concession that would protect cabbies. Under a proposal by Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh, Uber and other sedan services would have been forced to accept a $15-per-ride minimum -- five times the minimum charge for a taxi.
Uber's CEO emailed customers and posted on his blog a notice that the council would thus block Uber from offering a lower-price service it had recently introduced in other cities. The council, he wrote, intended "to prevent Uber from being a viable alternative to taxis." The company's usefulness to the public became evident immediately, as Twitter and the District's neighborhood listservs exploded with protests. Uber has won, for now -- the council passed a temporary resolution that allows it to operate as-is, without the price floor, through December. The matter will be taken up again in the fall.
D.C.'s taxi industry is vulnerable to companies like Uber because of poor service. There are excellent cabbies, but you are nearly as likely to hail a hack who will decide whether to take you based on your destination. (If you're in a hurry, the official complaint process provides no consolation.) And if you want to summon a cab to your home in a residential neighborhood ... well, good luck with that.
The purpose of taxi and livery regulations is to benefit consumers, not to protect incumbent operators from innovative competitors. If the taxi industry wants to thrive, it can accept market discipline and bring service up to snuff. It is no business of the District government to wound its competitors before the fight begins.