How Uber's Taxi App is Changing Cities

Traditional cab companies aren't thrilled about competing with Travis Kalanick, who aims to make speedy private car service available to everyone.
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"D.C. is a real pain in my butt," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told the audience at the Washington Ideas Forum this afternoon.

In a wide-ranging interview with James Fallows of The Atlantic, Kalanick introduced his company as part of a new wave of tangible technology that is changing urban policy and city protectionism, starting with the taxi lobby. In Washington, he said, a late-night attempt to pass a law to effectively ban Uber prompted a voracious social media response, including 37,000 tweets, which eventually defeated the so-called Uber Amendment. The experience created a "playbook" that Kalanick is taking across the country, and overseas, as he fights to popularize his app, which connects wannabe passengers with on-demand drivers.

There are 13,250 cabs in New York City today, he said, the same number as in the early 1950s. In cities like New York, where people's demand for transportation has outstripped the supply of cabs, services like Uber are "like an injection of oxygen," Kalanick said.

Still, he stressed that Uber's guiding principle isn't to become a headache for city governments. Rather, he said, Uber is the business of delivering cars in five minutes. "Our motto is 'Everyone's Private Driver,'" he said. The company, most famous for its black-car service, has come down-market with ride-sharing products like UberX that make on-demand auto transportation affordable to people who couldn't afford lobby-protected cab rates.

Ironically, the one thing that could make Uber's life easier is more government. "The lack of involvement from the federal [government] makes my job harder," Kalanick said, because interstate rules could theoretically ban regulations that keep Uber from competing in individual markets. But he's confident that the regulations will fall on their own. Either the cities change the laws, he said, or else they're forced to publicly support "really bad laws."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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