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D.C. Legislator Seeks To Reverse Rules Prohibiting Uber Service

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Uber has gone head to head with D.C. regulators since first arriving in D.C. in late 2011, and its new service promises more regulatory battles.
WAMU/Chris Chester
Uber has gone head to head with D.C. regulators since first arriving in D.C. in late 2011, and its new service promises more regulatory battles.

One week after D.C. regulators effectively banned the new sedan-for-hire service UberX from operating in Washington, a District council member who has refereed the many disputes between the D.C. Taxicab Commission and the tech startup Uber said she would intervene again.

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the chair of the council’s transportation committee, said she will introduce legislation to legalize UberX when lawmakers reconvene in mid-September.

“The legislation will in effect nullify the commission's rules that would say [Uber] can't use certain kinds of vehicles,” Cheh said.

On August 19 the D.C. Taxicab Commission ruled the midsize hybrid vehicles used by UberX drivers failed to comply with size requirements for sedan class regulations because they were not at least 95 cubic feet. The move was seen by critics as an attempt by regulators to protect the District’s metered taxi fleet, because although UberX utilized “sedans,” the service was designed to compete with metered taxicabs by offering comparable fares in similar vehicles.

“Competition is a good thing,” said Cheh, who put the D.C. Taxicab Commission on notice about stifling innovation in a June 4 letter to commission chairman Ron Linton.

“We don’t want competition if the consumer is at risk, so we are always going to protect against that,” Cheh said. “But competition in the marketplace is what drives innovation, and taxis will have to have better service to be able to compete.”

The taxicab commission has been engaged in a long struggle to modernize the District’s decrepit cab fleet, whose poor reputation has allowed companies like Uber an opening to win customers. For instance, the commission has been forced to extend a deadline several times for taxi owners to accept credit card payments, an amenity already available through e-hail smartphone apps used by Uber and its competitors, known as ‘digital dispatch services’ in regulatory parlance.

“I think at the end of the day, whether I came forward with this legislation or not, my instinct tells me the commission would probably find its way clear to allow these additional vehicles [for UberX]. It’s just that they are a little slower, they have a mindset and a culture that is still ‘yesterday’ and not ‘today,’ but I don’t want to wait for them,” Cheh said.

Uber released a statement praising Cheh’s decision to introduce a bill to legalize UberX.

“We appreciate Mary Cheh’s leadership pushing for consumer choice, driver opportunity and innovation in the District and we applaud her continuing to stand up for District consumers. We are very supportive of her efforts to ensure that uberX vehicles continue to operate in the District,” said Uber’s D.C. general manager Rachel Holt.

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