News & Politics

SideCar and UberX Say Proposed Taxi Regulations Would Drive Them Out of DC

Rules floated by the DC Taxicab Commission would curtail the popular taxi alternatives.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

A lawyer for ride-sharing service SideCar told the DC Taxicab Commission on Wednesday that proposed regulations targeting it and similar services could force the company to stop operating here.

The practice of hailing non-professional drivers for paid rides using smartphone apps—known as ride-sharing—is an increasingly popular alternative to taxis, and is becoming the latest front in the long-running battle to reform DC’s taxicab industry. 

Earlier this month, the commission proposed rules requiring the ride-sharing companies like SideCar, Uber, and Lyft to buy insurance, submit drivers to background checks, and force them to have their vehicles inspected every six months, as taxis are. The proposed regulations would also allow regular taxis that book through mobile apps to dispense with city-approved fares and charge as the new services do, including the use of “surge pricing” when demand peaks.

But regulation that the ride-share companies fear the most would restrict their amateurs drivers to just 20 hours a week, to prevent ride-sharing operations from taking street hails. Uber and SideCar say it would kill their practices. SideCar’s founder, Sunil Paul, wrote on his website last week that he is considering pulling out of the DC market.

“It’s terrifying,” said UberX driver Seth Levy.

Uber’s general manager in DC, Zuhairah Washington, called the commission’s proposal “burdensome and intrusive regulations that are threatening to derail the transportation industry” in an email to Washingtonian.

“It’s simply about fairness and equality,” said Roy Spooner, the general manager of Yellow Cab, the District’s largest taxi dispatcher, who blames the DC Council for exempting Uber’s black-car service from oversight when it appeared in DC in 2012. The Council is now considering a bill that would do the same for the ride-sharing apps.

Spooner also called for a rule banning vehicles other than metered taxicabs from picking up passengers at airports, hotels, Union Station, and other locations with specified taxi lines. 

It’s clear that the few dozen drivers who attended today’s hearing would like to get the ride-sharing companies out of DC altogether, and some commissioners seem to share that view. Stanley Tapscott, an 88-year-old longtime cabbie who sits on the commission, asked SideCar’s lawyer, Elizabeth Stevens, why her company even needs to exist alongside a 6,500-car taxi fleet.

“That’s like saying you can’t have a car because there’s a horse and buggy,” Stevens responded. She also said a 20-hour limit would turn away prospective drivers from signing up. As for the proposed insurance requirement, Stevens noted that SideCar covers its drivers with a $1 million liability policy; UberX operators are covered similarly.

The proposed regulations may become moot before they can be put into force, however. DC Council members Mary Cheh and David Grosso have sponsored legislation exempting ride-sharing that will get a hearing on May 12. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported Roy Spooner’s quote as “honesty and fairness.” He said “fairness and equality” in his testimony before the DC Taxicab Commission.

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.