Best Squandered Goodwill

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

The only people who like D.C. taxis are the people who drive them. And talking to some of the cabbies, it’s not always clear that they do, either. Which is why it should have been simple for Uber, the new smartphone-enabled car service that caters to the myopic little twit class, to roll into town and dominate. No more arguments over extra charges! No more worrying that the driver might not remember how to divide up the fare for multiple passengers! Cars pull up when you want them, where you want them. And you can even track their progress on a map as they head to you! The best part: No cash needed—Uber, unlike most D.C. cabs, takes credit cards.

Which is why the company’s early, self-inflicted PR gaffes were such a mystery. On New Year’s Eve, Uber implemented its “dynamic pricing”—read: inflated fares to account for extra demand—without really explaining how it worked ahead of time. Suddenly, the tweeps and Facebookers previously enamored of the upstart were hurling tomatoes; one Rockville resident reported a charge of $185 to get home from Chef Geoff’s near Ward Circle (a comparable cab ride usually runs $25). Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told the website All Things D that the firm was refunding some of the fares, but didn’t plan to change the business model. “If you look at a club that charges a $20 cover on a normal night and then charges $100 on New Year’s Eve—that’s just what happens,” he said.

Not long after that, Uber found itself in a fight with the D.C. Taxicab Commission. The company, the commission alleged, had failed to follow the relevant regulations for what it is—a car service—and was instead operating as a sort of taxi/limousine hybrid. Officials arrested a driver in a sting by the Mayflower Hotel, charging him with two violations of the rules. That misstep, though, Uber managed to spin in its favor. After all, its customer base doesn’t appreciate regulations that interfere with their attempts to ditch D.C. cabs. Uber launched a social media campaign around the hashtag #UberLoveDC, which garnered them far more publicity than simply following the rules would have. Even the New Year’s dustup helped them, in a way.

Maybe Oscar Wilde was right: There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.