Mayor Vincent Gray, Protector of Incumbents Everywhere (in D.C.)

The 2010 primary election that unseated mayor Adrian Fenty in favor of former council chief Vincent Gray was mostly portrayed as gentrifiers versus the poor, black versus white.  But another key dynamic was "incumbent versus newcomer".  DC's absurd zone fare system used to be a way for taxi drivers who lived in the district to fleece affluent people who mostly didn't; the DC school system was viewed as a jobs program, as well as a way to educate kids.  Fenty threatened the incumbent stakeholders, and they, in turn, helped elect Vincent Gray.


Now Vincent Gray is delivering.  Uber.com, a service that allows people to hail limo cars via their smartphones, has become very popular during its month in DC.  John Hendel derides its fans as "a mix of socialites, transportation fanatics, and libertarians", but although I plead guilty to the last, I have another, rather simpler reason for loving Uber: there's nowhere that I can reliably get a cab near my house.  Having missed trains because the cab didn't show--and been reluctant to go out at night because of some rather tricky spots between my house and alcohol-safe transportation--I've been very glad of a service that let me call a car and know that it would be there within a few minutes.  The cars cost about twice what a cab does, and so of course, I use them very sparingly, but the option has definitely improved my life.

However, it has not improved the lives of cab drivers, so the DC government is moving in:

An Uber car was impounded and its driver was ticketed this morning as part of a sting operation, said the commission chairman, Ron Linton. The action comes two days after Linton said in a commission meeting that he considered the service to be operating illegally.

Linton played a role in the sting, hailing a Uber car from a smartphone then directing it to the Mayflower Hotel, where city hack inspectors were waiting. The driver, who was not identified, was ticketed for two violations, Linton said.

The first alleged violation was "incorrect hauling" -- because the driver and his car are licensed in Virginia, he is allowed to pick up a District passenger only if he is going to take the rider to Virginia; Linton's trip was completely within the District. The second was "improper charging" -- under city law, limousine trips must have a fare set in advance; Uber's system uses time-and-distance metering, and Linton said the driver refused to cite him a fare before the trip began.

"What they're trying to do is be both a taxi and a limousine," Linton said. "Under the way the law is written, it just can't be done."

The driver, Linton said, will have an opportunity to appeal his tickets, which carry hefty fines.

The complaint is that they don't have a license to do what they do.  Of course, there's no way to get a license to do what they do--it doesn't exist--and no one's come up with a very sound argument as to why it shouldn't exist.  I don't think I understand what scourge an Uber shutdown protects DC citizens from.


Meanwhile, also this week, the city decided to go after the food trucks that have blossomed around DC over the last year or so:

Over the past week, District officials have been visiting food trucks and telling them that beginning on Jan 13, 2012, they will be ticketing food trucks that don't have a line formed in front of them.  Specifically, if there is a lapse of more than 15 minutes between customers, the food truck will receive a $1000 fine!  UPDATE: I hate to report this, but the news is even worse.. District officials were allowing 15 minutes between customers, but starting tomorrow, they will have no time frame!  The fine is also set at $50, but escalates with every violation (so, I'm guessing that's where the $1000 figure comes from).  This means that if MPD rolls up and sees a truck with no line, they are immediately fined $50 and told to pack things up and go home.  To add insult to injury, if a truck racks up 17 of these violations in one year, they can have their license revoked.

As you may know, DC food trucks are operating under decades-old ice cream truck regulations.  District Mayor, Vincent Gray (eom@dc.gov), has new unpublished regulations sitting on his desk that would bring DC's laws up to date with the current times.  But, he is refusing to move forward with updating the food truck regulations, probably because he doesn't want to ruffle the feathers of the restaurant association. 

Apparently, at 5 pm yesterday, however, the mayor backed down and said no further enforcement actions were planned.

My personal interest in food trucks and reliable car service aside, it will be interesting to see how these things play out.  There's a lot of love for food trucks, and apparently, for Uber.  But the incumbents are very well organized, and probably prepared to do a lot more than tweet about their desires.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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