Ride-Sharing App SideCar Comes to DC

Is this hitchhiking for the 21st century?

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Another new startup urban transportation resource has come to Washington. Its name is SideCar, a ride-sharing service that might also be called hitchhiking for the 21st century. It rolled out in a tentative way, asking media companies to “agree” to an embargo before being allowed to receive any early background information or opportunities to speak with company executives. We preferred to wait for the official start, which was this past weekend.

Like Uber before it, SideCar was born in San Francisco and has set up business in a number of cities, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Austin, and Seattle. Also like Uber and Car2Go, it operates off a smartphone app, matching would-be riders with drivers. The company says it raised $10 million in startup financing from investors Google Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners. It is not the first ride-sharing business in the country, but it’s likely the first app version to plant a flag in DC. Initially, the service is only available on weekends.

In an interview with TechCrunch TV at the SXSW Interactive event in Austin earlier this month, cofounder Nick Allen described SideCar as “an app that connects people who want to give a ride with people who want to get a ride. Simply pinpoint your location and where you’re going, and someone in their own car comes and picks you up and takes you where you need to go.” The company stresses that it is “not a taxi, dispatch, or limousine service.”

There are obvious questions. What does it cost? The company’s answer is that it is a “donation-based service.” What the rider pays is voluntary, but SideCar offers a “suggested donation” in the app, which reflects what others have paid for rides of similar duration.

Is it safe? SideCar says it conducts background checks on drivers and also requires valid driver’s licenses, insurance, and a car that is in good condition. Riders are able to rate the drivers on a scale of one to five. Further, SideCar says, every trip is tracked by GPS. There is an emergency phone number provided on the website to be used by any driver or rider “concerned for his or her safety.” It’s also possible to block individual drivers.

In another similarity with Uber, SideCar is not without its share of civic scrutiny and controversy as officials try to define the service and determine how it should be licensed. According to TechCrunch, there is a lawsuit in Austin, a cease-and-desist order in California and what SideCar called a city parking authority “sting” in Philadelphia, which was its first East Coast city.

From almost its first day of operation in DC, in late 2011, Uber faced hurdles from the City Council and the DC Taxi Commission, but it has prevailed and earlier this year began providing taxi service in addition to town cars and SUVs.

Sidecar does not yet have data for the number of users during its first weekend of operation in DC but says it has given more than 100,000 matched rides nationally.