The D.C. Taxicab Commission has been slammed this week for passing regulations that restrict competition and effectively prevent luxury sedan service Uber’s new offshoot, UberX, from operating in the city.
In the District, traditional taxicabs and sedan services operate under different sets of regulations. For instance, a sedan cannot be hailed by customers on the side of the road and will not have meters. Taxis, on the other hand, must have meters.
The regulations passed Monday define what qualifies as a sedan, excluding midsize hybrid vehicles—-which is significant for Uber, since UberX is meant to provide customers with lower fares by using midsize fuel-efficient vehicles instead of the luxury sedans. Under the new regulations, the vehicles used by UberX would have to operate as traditional cabs, and not through an app service. (The list of qualifying sedans is 420 vehicles long and allows for alternative fuel vehicles of at least 95 cubic feet in volume, like the Bentley Flying Spur and Jaguar XJL.)
It’s no secret that the commission doesn’t particularly like Uber and the competition it brings for cabs. And the regulations likely have something to do with the prospect of new services entering the market, like UberX and the similar, app-based Lyft. The narrative that’s played out this week has suggested the new rules effectively kill UberX’s ability to operate in the District. So it’s worth wondering: Was that the commission’s intention?
According to D.C. Cab Commission spokesman Neville Waters, that simply isn’t the case. After all, he says, the regulations had been in the works for about 10 months, and the commission only found out about the launch of UberX around when it actually launched in August. Waters adds that the commission held several public comment meetings on the evolving new rules, none of which were attended by Uber representatives.
Rachel Holt, Uber’s regional director overseeing D.C., says the company did not formally tell the commission about UberX because, based on its understanding of current regulations, it believed it was operating a legal business.
Holt adds that the commission must have known about the midsize hybrid service, because UberX launched in San Francisco back in 2012. And while Uber reps did not attend any of the commission’s meetings, the company did submit public comments arguing against the passage of the proposed regulations, saying the commission “imposed arbitrary requirements on the types of vehicles that can be used as sedans.”
The regulations are set to go into effect Nov. 1, according to Waters, and at that point, any midsize UberX vehicle not operating as a traditional taxi will unquestionably be operating illegally.
But there’s still hope for Uber.
“The passage of the regulations on Monday should not be viewed as the end of the process,” Waters says.
The commission just launched an Industry Panel—-made up, it should be noted, of a several taxicab commissioners—-that will assess the changing nature of the cab service market, and, in part, make a recommendation to the full cab commission on the new regulations by the end of the year. Which means there’s a possibility the new regulations won’t stay on the books for long. The panel’s first meeting is in late September.
And it seems that Uber’s got some D.C. councilmembers in its corner, including Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works, and Transportation, who tweeted, “it isn’t the job of DC Government to stifle innovation & limit consumer choice by passing unfair regulations.”
Update, 8:00 a.m.: While during an earlier interview, Holt that no Uber representatives were present at meetings on these D.C. Taxicab Commission’s new regulations, a spokesman clarified in an email that outside counsel for Uber was present at all those meetings.