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The question of whether so-called ridesharing companies should be subject to the same regulations as D.C. taxicabs continues to hang over Washington, not to be resolved until the fall.
In the meantime, the D.C. Taxicab Commission is tweaking proposals that would affect the operations of the app-based “rideshare” services UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar, referred to as “private sedans” by regulators.
Regardless of how they are described, such drivers who want to spend more than 20 hours per week behind the wheel would have to apply for a regular taxi license and purchase primary commercial liability insurance, under a new regulation to be rolled out today by the DCTC. It is a modification to an earlier proposal to absolutely limit “rideshare” drivers to 20 hours weekly.
“They argued that it wasn't fair to limit them,” said taxicab commission chairman Ron Linton. “So now we are giving them a choice. If you want to drive more than 20 hours a week, then you have to come down and get a face card from us, an S tag for your car, and get your insurance just like any taxi driver gets their insurance."
Uber, whose UberX app is the most prominent “rideshare” service in D.C., ripped the new proposal.
"Yet again the DCTC fails to get it. It's plain and simple that limiting economic opportunity does nothing but hurt the District,” said Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett. “We look forward to Councilmembers Cheh and Grosso and the rest of City Council developing a regulatory framework that embraces ridesharing."
The tech companies have fought regulators’ attempts to create a level playing field in the intensely competitive vehicle-for-hire industry. They contend part-time drivers using their personal cars as taxis to make a few extra bucks (which does not fit the traditional definition of ridesharing) would be scared off by regulations usually reserved for full-time licensed cab drivers.
Drivers who sign up with Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar currently do not abide by the same regulatory scheme as licensed cabbies.
For instance, an UberX vehicle does not have to comply with the District’s new taxicab color scheme, install the new dome light, or collect the $.25 per ride surcharge and remit it to the taxicab commission.
This lower cost structure allows UberX to charge lower fares, eating into licensed cab drivers’ customer base. A recent UberX ad said, “Wherever this summer takes you, UberX will be the cheapest ride in town.”
The biggest battle is being fought over insurance requirements. While D.C. taxicabs are required to carry 24/7 commercial liability insurance, “rideshare” drivers possess only their personal auto policies that generally exclude coverage for commercial activities.
Uber’s competitors are losing patience with the current arrangement.
“Anyone who is driving citizens around this city for hire should have the proper licensing, the proper insurance, the proper background checks,” said David Miller, the CEO of the tech startup Hitch.
Hitch’s payment software is installed in credit card consoles in roughly 2,000 D.C. taxicabs. So if more consumers are choosing UberX, then fewer are hailing metered taxicabs and swiping their credit cards through Miller’s machines.
He said the total number of weekly trips in cabs that use Hitch software is down 20 percent since March. While Congress is out of session and many people are on vacation, Miller suspects UberX is also responsible for the decrease.
“The ridesharing companies don't have to deal with a lot of costs that the cabs do. So the real solution is you either eliminate all the regulations for the cabbies, or you assess the ridesharing companies with the same regulations the cabbies have to deal with.”
The D.C. Taxicab Commission is also proposing limiting any driver — limousine or taxicab — to the use of one e-hailing app at a time. Several digital dispatch services are authorized to operate in Washington, allowing drivers who spend a lot of time burning up gasoline as they cruise for street hails to be electronically summoned by a would-be customer via smartphone app.
After reports that some drivers were juggling three or four different handheld devices at a time while on the road, one for each e-hail app they use, Chairman Linton said public safety was being compromised.
“We've seen some [drivers] with four or five different handheld devices on their front seat looking to see the number of rides they can squeeze in,” said Linton.
“We think there are two problems with that. One, it is an accident waiting to happen because of the lack of attention they are devoting to their driving,” he added.
“The second is, we have had a couple incidents where drivers have expelled people from their vehicle after picking them up because they've gotten another ping on a handheld that’s giving them a better ride they want.”