Washington, DC Stifling Uber Shows Lack of Supporting Innovation & It’s Just Politics As Usual

Jan 09, 2011 · 7 mins read
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by Ken Yeung
Uber DCI can’t tell you how much I love riding Uber. Ever since I’ve moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve been hanging out downtown and other neighborhoods until late at night when there’s either no bus service readily available or a scarcity of cabs and in desperate need to get home. My problems continue when there are cabs available and either (a) don’t stop, or (b) do stop and tell me that they can’t take me to my destination. Why? I have no idea…but while some might decide to wallow in their desperation about just how they can get home, thankfully I have Uber to come in and save my day. While I’m not enjoying the fact that it’s quite expensive over the course of time, every now and then, I find it necessary and that even worth spoiling myself over just to call on Uber to get me home or wherever I need them to take me.

So you’ll understand my excitement when I travel to another city and discover that Uber is there as well–just this past weekend, I was in Los Angeles and decided to venture out from my hotel to a bar to hang out with my friends. Normally I would probably hop in a cab, but after finding out that Uber was servicing the area, I decided to go that route and was pleased with the response.

Unfortunately, my experience with this great disruptive service isn’t necessarily shared by everyone–not every really cares for what Travis Kalanick and Ryan Graves has done, and there are some that are trying to stifle it in favor of continued promotion of a traditional system and favored industry. In Washington, DC, a town with a growing tech community, the city council recently debated over an amendment to their city that would revolutionize their dilapidated cab service, but punish Uber’s DC service. Why? No one really seems to know the truth to why the DC city council would go that route, but some may speculate that the taxi industry is a powerful lobby in the city. Even politicians have tried to punish the startup–in early January, DC Taxicab Commission chairman Ron Linton used a sting to try and claim that Uber’s operations in the nation’s capital were illegal. Other cities have been hammering on the service as well. But what do they have to fear? Another method for people to get around? Something ingenious that uses technology to help provide better response? An even easier method that would help expedite payments? Who knows, but it seems to have gotten worse for Uber…

Taxi cab - Do you accept credit cards? (Photo: flickr/alexbarth)Today, Uber was faced with a daunting task: the DC city council was set to vote on a new amendment that was supposed to help “modernize” their cab service, but at the same time threaten the very existence of the Uber service in the area. Known as the Cheh Amendment, named after councilwoman Mary Cheh (Ward-3), it would have set a minimum base fare for the service, which was rumored to be at least five times more than what people normally pay–in essence, it would have been a gross extreme of any surge pricing Uber could offer. Thankfully, due to some last minute heroics by the Uber community, led by Mr. Kalanick, Uber was able to offer some sway to the DC city council and have the amendment tabled, at least for this round. The enormous backlash that was generated after hearing this service helped to convince the city council that right now was probably not the right time for this to be passed.

What this goes to show is that Washington, DC is still very much set on being tied with the status quo and doesn’t really shed any care for the innovations that are happening in tech. Perhaps the city council and those in power are scared about what technological progress can bring and help the community. Who knows, but it’s fascinating that they’re so upset about what Uber brings to the table–after all, it’s not the only transportation option in town–DC has their famous Metrorail and Metrobus system, followed by the DC Circulator, and even their cab drivers. So why is the Uber way of life traumatic to the DC system?

In a statement given to the DC City Council, Mr. Kalanick wrote:

The high level on UberDC is that our customers in the District, in shocking solidarity in email and social networks have made their voices heard about the value and quality of the Uber transportation alternative. Reliable service that’s prompt and doesn’t discriminate. Convenience that makes getting around DC a breeze without cash changing hands. Coverage that doesn’t leave you stranded late at night. Our driver-partners provide this service because they take pride in their work, and because they believe in making DC a great place to live and to get around in. When the Council fixes Uber’s prices, it stands against these basic benefits going to the average constituent – that for some reason only the rich can get them.

And this is what politicians and the cab industry is scared of? Uber is giving its users more peace of mind and having dedicated residents offer up their town cars as a means to get around in style so that they sometimes have a chance to be treated like they’re special and deserving of great customer support. Why should residents and even the tourist and their friends and family be subjected to periodic harassment and poor treatment by regular cab drivers who are often talking on the phone, going long distances, and stopping to pick up a fare only to drive off later without any explanation? Uber is all about the people and they’re even giving the cab industry more of an advantage by not competing price-wise with them.

As Menlo Ventures managing partner, Shervin Pishevar*, wrote on the Huffington Post:

When consumers are given the freedom to choose and competition is encouraged, the result is innovation, efficiency, and more convenient, lower cost options. Inefficiency is turned into profit and economic growth is fostered; everyone wins. Instead, as in the case of DC, it is as if 19th and 20th century crony city politics has risen its ugly head. What is evidenced is a power struggle where one company is guarding its turf — currying favor with local officials — at the expense of DC residents.

The citizens of Washington, DC, along with those in other locations where transportation services can be vastly improved are eager for solutions, not additional legislation that would only further open up the wounds of inefficiency. Both Uber and the cab industry can co-exist and operate in the same city without any problems, but by resorting to leveraging political tricks in order to help win a battle is devious and unwarranted. Businesses must learn to adapt with the changing times–perhaps this is the ultimate lesson that all industries must learn. And don’t be mistaken that we’re all eager to have Uber win because we love their cars, because that’s not necessarily true. It’s how they treat us ordinary people and how it’ll make our lives easier getting from point A to point B.

Ryan Graves tweet “We won”

Congratulations Uber…continue to fight the good fight.

  • Editor’s note: Mr. Pishevar has disclosed that he is an investor in Uber.

Photo Credit:

  • Nibletz.com
  • Flickr/alexbarth

About the Author:

Ken Yeung
Editor-in-Chief of Bub.blicio.us and an accomplished interactive producer in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area interested in all things in tech and marketing. Whether its gadgets or startups or related issues, he’s eager to learn about it. From attending local and national conferences to appearing at events, parties, and other meetups, Ken is interested in sharing what he sees. Oh, and he’s an accomplished photographer too, having been commissioned by Mashable, TechCrunch, TechSet, SXSW, BlogWorld, and many more.

Visit Ken’s page at http://www.thelettertwo.com