City Desk

Uber v. Taxis: Whoever Wins, We Lose

While Mary Cheh's push to regulate luxury cab service Uber has stalled for now, some recent tough talk from D.C. taxi commission head Ron Linton suggests such efforts will return eventually.  Hopefully the attempt to regulate Uber will focus on the fracas's real victims: people who find both sides despicable.

Washington's news spectators have been pretty lucky in their controversies lately. Whether it's a councilmember who stole money from kids or a power company that can't keep the lights on, the choices for our heroes and villains are usually pretty easy.

Not so in the Uber tussle, though. The initial impulse is to be on the side of the smartphone innovators shaking up the cab industry. Washington's taxi drivers are, for the most part, opposed to every change that will make a cab ride more pleasant. They opposed the switch from zones to meters, and, more recently, the mandate to install credit cards and GPS trackers.

Instead, a read through Uber's Twitter feed—with its leitmotif that using Uber makes one look like a rock star—makes you want to join a cab strike and roll out the guillotine. As frustrating as D.C.'s cab drivers are, the reflexive opposition to government regulation by Uber's supporters is just as grating. Without the cab commission, the only barrier to operating as a cab driver would be getting a car, wrecking any chance of cab drivers making a living wage.

But just when you're on the cab drivers' side, you remember that Uber serves neighborhoods the taxis won't, and you're back where you started.

Washington hasn't seen so intense rivalry since the 2010 primary fight between Vince Gray and Adrian Fenty. That muddle eventually clarified in a flood of indictments. With luck, the Uber-taxi fight will end with everyone involved going to prison, too.

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  • Don

    I disagree completely. Uber uses an advertising campaign that touts this rock-star image-based stuff as part of their appeal and yeah, I think that's kinda squickey. But if I ruled out of my life everything that used an advertising approach that didn't appeal to me then I'd be limiting myself from a lot of products.

    The suggestion that it's only set fares that allows cab drivers to earn a living wage flies in the face of basic capitalism. First, I just don't think it passes the smell test. You can't just set a price and have it magically follow that people will therefor be willing to pay it. The taxi fares have to reflect a price consumers are willing to pay or people won't use cabs.

    Uber's entire existence refutes the idea. They charge more than a cab does yet people pay it.

    If you mean to imply that without the cab commission that anyone could just drive out there and pick up fares, okay, that would indeed present an issue and we can argue about whether it would be an insurmountable one for cabs. But since nobody at Uber has ever, to my knowledge, suggested that the limos who are their contractors shouldn't have to pass the current hired car certifications already required in the city... how does your assertion pass the smell test?

    The cab commission should exist to serve the interests of the public and balance that against the needs and fair play for the cab drivers. But everything in our city suggests that's not happening. Stories of cabs refusing to pick up people in certain neighborhoods and folks in wheelchairs abound. Where are the commission stings for that?

    Similarly the set fare for cabs exists not as a supplement for cab drivers but to protect consumers from gouging. You wave down a cab on the street and you know what the minimum is they are supposed to charge you. We set the rate high enough to protect drivers - witness how quickly and easily we'll add fuel surcharges - but it's not there for them. They have the ultimate power to decide they're going to stop driving for the night.

    Uber has what is, to me, a compelling argument to be able to operate at a different fare. People who use Uber have to jump through sufficient hoops such that they know what price they'll be paying. Asking them to commit to a price floor doesn't do anything to protect consumers, nor does it protect Uber.

    Instead it is pure protectionism for a service that serves a partially overlapping market space. Whose interest is that in? Uber found a way to do a value-add. It's not asking to be freed of all regulation to have that recognized. It's asking the commission to serve all of us and properly balance interests. Protecting the cab industry's right to be free of similar but not identical competition isn't its job.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    Without the cab commission, the only barrier to operating as a cab driver would be getting a car, wrecking any chance of cab drivers making a living wage.

    Do cab drivers in Sweden, where prices and entry are deregulated, not earn living wages? What about cab drivers in Romania? Or the dollar van and livery services in Brooklyn?

    The vast majority of markets in the United States do not have regulated prices or entry. If you're going to argue that cab drivers need this regulation, you're going to have to explain what makes driving a cab different from every other good and service that it demands such strict regulation of pricing.

  • drez

    @Don
    Not a huge cabbie fan, but claiming that Uber isn't in control of their own paid advertising is just silly. If they didn't like the image their advertisers are projecting than they would fire them and hire someone else.

  • http://www.welovedc.com Don

    @drez - Huh? I'm not claiming they're not in control. They want to market their stuff as some sort of whoop-whoop-pop-the-Cristal experience, well, I am not the audience for that. What I am saying is that there's plenty of advertising out there that's not effective on me but that doesn't mean I have to boycott the product.

    It would be a different story if they were using some sort of hateful junk in their advertising; I wouldn't wear Axe body spray even if it didn't smell like fruit-flavored ass. But I can simultaneously think "The Champagne of Beers" is a stupid tag line and that Miller High-Life is an under-rated low-price beer.

  • Noticed

    Yikes, this post certainly brought the moms basement-dwelling Ayn Rand readers out of the wood work.

  • Art

    What Don said. And, what Don said.

  • “Bring That Ball, Meat!”

    Just last Thurssay, I and my fellow passengers had to take a cab from downtown's west side out to the far hinterlands of New York Avenue. What we got for our money was a smelly, beat up Crown Vic (my guess is about an '02 or '03 model year) with air conditioning that barely worked, plain and scuffed-up brown seats, and a driver that did not understand our repeated directions ( Did he even know that one could travel "east" on NY avenue? ).I could hear the brakes squealing around corners (new brake pads, anyone?). Why would I ever subject myself to this again? Next time, it's Uber.

  • DG

    Look, the bottom line s that I cannot get Diamond or Yellow cab to answer the phone at night and even if they do, I cannot get them to find me a ride. Standing in the street at midnight to flag a cab is not an option. People in my office have been held up by gun at 9:30. So Über offers me a service that does not otherwise exist. And it has been very good. Maybe competition from Über will make Yellow and Diamond step up their act.

  • Jane

    Ugh. Organizations like these claim to hate regulation of any kind until some crisis threatens their existence and they change their tune (see the ongoing CrossFit fiasco). If it comes down to Ayn Rand or shitty cabs, I'll go with the latter.

  • Kathy

    So, the reason the author gives for coming down against Über is because of what people say on their twitter feed??

    So well reasoned.

  • http://www.paulstaxi.com PaulTheCabDriver

    I own a cab company in Phoenix Arizona ( http://www.paulstaxi.com ) the largest city in the United States and one of the largest in the world with a deregulated taxi market. Yes, here in Phoenix, anyone can buy a car, mark it up as a cab, add a meter, and hang out his shingle. But first, not everyone wants the long, tough job of being a cab driver. And not everyone has what it takes to be a cab driver. Those who can't hack it (pun intended) usually find another line of work. Despite the lack of barriers to competition, my men and I have never had a huge problem making ends meet. We simply provide the best possible service we can, at the best prices we can.
    Price restrictions and barriers to entry do absolutely nothing to help the average cab driver. They only benefit large cab companies, hide-bound by bureaucracy, that cannot compete in a free market. And the idea that price restrictions and barriers to entry somehow protect the consumer is balderdash as well. What they do is prevent the consumer from getting a potentially LOWER price on their cab rides. and the barriers to entry prevent them from getting higher quality service, if they can catch a cab at all.
    The author wishes to resort to violence to solve his problems. He recommends strikes, the guillotine, and caging people in jail because they don't agree with his way of doing things. In a free market, if you don't agree with the way something is done you simply find another cab. But I guess freedom isn't quite as exciting as jailing people and cutting off their heads.

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