Ron Linton just wanted a ride to the Mayflower Hotel, or so his Uber driver thought. Instead, Linton, the chairman of the D.C. Taxi Cab Commission, was looking to catch a driver for the app-dispatched Uber sedan service breaking taxi regulations. When his driver turned out to be registered in Virginia, making it illegal for him to take Linton between two points in the District, the commissioner got what he wanted—and the driver got his car impounded.
Linton’s sting in January was the District’s first probe into the legal gray area Uber had wedged itself into, but not the last. Because of their premium rates and dispatch-only availability, Uber’s cars qualified as sedans instead of taxis. But by offering metered rides and being as convenient as opening a smartphone app, Uber’s cars could be as used like a cab while avoiding the accompanying regulations. It would take 12 months for the District and Uber to figure out what that meant.
Days after Linton’s sting, Uber fought back in flamboyant style, hosting an open bar for its supporters, the so-called “Uber faithful.” Obviously, this newcomer knew how to lobby and how to party.
Months of relative quiet were broken in July, when the company’s PR machine went into high gear over Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh’s plan to write new regulations for sedans—even though Uber had been talking to Council staff about the bill. Cheh’s measure would have put the company beyond the reach of the cab commission, but also mandate a $15 price floor. That would have killed a planned cheaper version of Uber, the very Silicon Valley-sounding UberX.
CEO Travis Kalanick, presenting the very idea of a price floor as an insult to capitalism, rallied the Uber faithful to blanket the Council with emails. In fact, according to emails between Uber’s lobbyist and Cheh’s office, the company wasn’t opposed to price floors—just to the specific $15 one. But that wouldn’t be revealed until Uber’s army of myopic little twits had already overwhelmed the Wilson Building. Days after she proposed it, Cheh withdrew her bill.
By September, the question wasn’t whether D.C. would let Uber stay, but how much regulatory space the city would concede to the company. A lot of that uncertainty came from Kalanick himself, who insisted on sulking through a conciliatory hearing like a gifted-and-talented teenager stuck in the dumb class. His mood was probably stung by appearances from incoming London-based rival Hailo and another witness who claimed Uber cars were the ideal tool for bomb-toting terrorists.
In December, much to the hypothetical terrorists’ delight, the Council unanimously voted for new regulations that would legalize Uber. Suddenly, Uber and Cheh were best friends, with Kalanick praising her leadership. Working with lawmakers is just “how we roll,” Kalanick said. “No pun intended.”