Ride-Sharing App SideCar Comes to DC

Is this hitchhiking for the 21st century?
Photograph courtesy of SideCar.
Photograph courtesy of SideCar.

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.

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