News & Politics

Uber Uproar Prompts Calls to Just Get Rid of DC Taxicab Commission

An editorial in DC's paper-of-record says it's time for DC's taxi regulators to go away. The head of the commission says the Post's writers "don't know what they're talking about."

Photograph via Shutterstock.

With Uber, the popular taxi- and sedan-by-smartphone company, and the DC Taxicab Commission in yet another regulatory spat, sympathy for the app is growing to the point where some influential voices are starting to say it’s simply time for the District’s livery regulators to go.

An editorial in today’s Washington Post makes that claim, citing Uber’s newest battle with the commission, which centers over what types of vehicles it can use in its new, mid-priced UberX service. For that product, which costs slightly more than city-mandated taxicab rates but less than a full-size luxury sedan, Uber likes to use compact and mid-size cars with hybrid cars, such as the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion.

But the commission says those cars don’t belong in sedan service. Last week it adopted regulations that restrict sedans—which do not operate along the District’s regulated taxi fare schedule—to vehicles that are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “luxury sedan,” “upscale sedan,” or “sport utility vehicle.” Uber quickly complained that models in those categories are larger, more expensive, and less likely to run on hybrid engines.

“Consumers are clamoring for attractive transportation alternatives, but that seems to be of little consequence to an agency fixated on protecting city cabs from competition,” the Post writes in its editorial today. “The D.C. Council should rescind these harmful rules and move to abolish a commission whose usefulness is increasingly dubious.”

When the editorial hit the Web last night, it did not take long for some DC officials to nod in agreement. First among those was DC Council member Tommy Wells, who is also running in next year’s mayoral election.

“When I had oversight of the Transportation Committee I had an agenda and one of the items was abolishing the DC Taxicab Commission,” Wells says in a phone interview. He adds that the commission’s lethargy in mandating credit card readers in cabs—many of the city’s 7,300 taxis will miss the Sept. 1 deadline to install the devices—is another nick on the agency’s reputation.

“There should be one person at the [District] Department of Transportation to manage the city’s interest in honing a reliable taxi fleet,” Wells says.

Council member Mary Cheh, who now runs the Transportation Committee, says she will introduce legislation to overturn the recent batch of regulations.

Rachel Holt, who manages Uber’s East Coast operations, was happy to read the Post’s editorial. “We’re excited about the Post and other publications standing up for District residents,” she says. “Transportation options are incredibly important to us.”

But she won’t go so far as to openly endorse DC’s newspaper-of-record calling for the dissolution of the city agency with which her employer has consistently grappled since arriving in town back in late 2011. “I’m not going to comment on that one,” Holt says. “Regardless of what organizational body is creating regulations, we believe it’s important those regulations are done in the best interest of consumers and hope that DCTC or another organization is carrying that out.”

Not surprisingly, DC Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton was not thrilled when he opened the Post this morning. “My reaction is one of sadness that editorial writers don’t know what they’re talking about,” he tells Washingtonian. “Our response is that they missed the point. It’s not about one set of cars.”

The Post, Linton argues, is oversimplifying things by carrying Uber’s argument against regulation. “What it’s about isn’t cheap taxi service, it’s about Uber making sure Lyft and Sidecar don’t get a jump on them,” he says.

Linton also doesn’t take kindly to Wells’s proposal to swap out his commission for one guy in a room. “I didn’t know we had so much citizen participation that we are going to replace eight citizens on this commission and replace them with some faceless bureacrat in the basement of some building,” he says.

But in Linton’s estimation, he’s not even sure that many people will notice that the Post’s editorial page is making a case for Uber.

“How many people read the Post these days?” he asks.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.