Car service platform Uber has been called many things: the next step in transportation, a green solution to ease metro gas emissions, and now illegal. Maybe. The company has come under fire from the Washington D.C. Taxicab Commission, which said earlier this week that “they’re operating illegally, and we plan to take steps against them.”
What is Uber
At the moment, Uber is only available in select cities, so here’s a quick primer on how the platform works. Using the mobile app (or text message) you request a car. Then Uber sends over a professional driver in a “sleek black car” (luxury sedans, not limos, for the record); the wait is usually no longer than 15 minutes. Your credit card is set up to the app, so you’re automatically billed (including the tip).
According to the site, you’re charged based on “GPS data from your ride and charges for distance or time depending on your speed.” In D.C., for example, Uber charges a base pay of $7 and adds $3.25 for each mile traveled and $0.75 for each minute the car is in service.
Perhaps the largest convenience (aside to being squired about and foregoing the hassle of driving) is that Uber is cash-free. But make no mistake, Uber isn’t some money-saving, car-sharing alternative. Instead it falls somewhere between limo service and cab rides.
Why it’s “illegal”
Uber itself claims that it’s an “ally to ‘the system’” because it offers drivers the ability to make more money and also plays by the rules of the industry. But D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton argues otherwise.
“We license public vehicles for hire under two arrangements,” he told DCist. “One is a time and metered distance, that’s a taxicab. The other is a fixed rate by appointment, and that’s a limo. They don’t quality under either circumstance.”
So because Uber falls in this undefined, or uber-defined (pun intended) gray area, it’s covering too much ground and therefore operating against the rules. The fact that Uber doesn’t own its cars (it has partnerships with local limousine businesses) is also part of the problem.
The argument between Uber and the D.C.T.C. came to a head this morning, when a “sting operation” ticketed a driver and impounded his car. He was ticketed for not holding a chauffer license, driving an unlicensed vehicle, no proof of insurance, and charging “improper fare.”
The biggest hit against Uber is the fact that this driver is licensed to work in Virginia, so the commission has him on a technicality (something that is likely more relevant in this particular area).
Uber is defending itself, however, saying the commission hasn’t presented any statutes saying what the company is doing is against the law, and that the chairman has avoided being contacted by the company. The service also says it plans to continue to operate.
It seems like the major issue here is the fact that Uber is a next-gen sort of service, and taxicabs are quickly becoming something of a relic. It’s not as if Uber is the only platform out there combining social networking, mobile applications, and transportation. There are a bevy of car-sharing or swapping alternatives (Zipcar, Wheelz, GetAround) out there that are trying to alleviate our reliance on self-owned vehicles or the pain or expense of traveling solo.
And naturally, that’s going to disrupt the taxicab market. The difference with Uber is that it’s driver-based, so it’s cutting a little too close to home.
One major knock against Uber’s cred is its recent New Years Eve fiasco, when it increased its fares some 6.5 times the normal rate, and left many customers without their ordered rides.
But that’s the risk you run depending on a start-up during one of the busiest days of the year. And the D.C.T.C.’s actions seem to be grasping at straws: first of all, ticketing the driver and impounding his car doesn’t punish Uber, it punishes the individual driver. Secondly, operating in a gray area is less than advisable.
Really, it’s two sides of an industry, the old and the new, pushing against each other because we’re in a state of flux. But like we said, Uber isn’t the only taxi-alternative out there, and the cab market has more to worry about than just this one operation.