Bonanza of Extra Reading on the Uber-in-D.C. Saga


I mentioned last night (other-side-of-the-Pacific time) my amazement at what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to hobble a new competitor in the District of Columbia's universally unloved current taxicab situation. I am about to load up for the long flight back to DC, where I can learn more about this first hand. For now, some items for extra reading, plus a visual reminder at right of the finest days of DC cab-dom. (I actually loved that movie.)

1) Megan McArdle's article in the May 2012 issue of our magazine on why the taxi system in many cities, most dramatically DC, is so unsatisfactory to all involved, from passengers to drivers to regulators to owners. She also sets out the background the current fight over regulation of Uber, the hip and stylish iPhone-app ride-on-demand service.

2) An update from Carl Franzen on TPM on what happened at the City Council today.

3) Another account of the City Council action from Shani Hilton on the NBC Washington site. It includes among other things this intriguing tidbit, about the requirement that Uber set its equivalent of a flag-drop fee at five times the rate for normal cabs:

The company has objected to the $15 price floor, but Pesante [a spokesperson for the Council member who pushed the bill, Mary Cheh] said that's intended to be more of a ceiling. $15 is already Uber's own minimum fare, and legally setting it as the base rate would mean that Uber can't increase prices later.

If that's so, there must have been something else in the bill that is not apparent at face value, or that I missed by being out of the country. Here is what it said about the flag drop fee for "sedans," the category that applied to Uber: "Sedans would be required to charge a minimum fare of 5 times the drop rate for taxicabs."

If this provision is "intended to be more of a ceiling," I wonder how Cheh was planning to get that intention across. And presumably if Uber jacked up its fees unreasonably, the "ceiling" would be that people would stop using it.

4) A piece by Dave Weigel in Slate that conveys a lot of the snarled racial, regional, and home-rule politics of the taxi controversy. Weigel also underscores the real reason the controversy has touched such a nerve in the DC region:

I've never actually used Uber. Saying that is not saying, "I enjoy D.C. cabs." Nobody says that. Few cabs in this city take credit cards. Many of them give blank paper slips in lieu of receipts, which seems like unofficial discrimination against people who file expense reports. If you've ever arrived at Union Station or Reagan National Airport in the late evening, you'd settle for some of that--if you could find a cab.... I've been rooting for Uber because the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia taxi regime is atrocious, and atrocious service-providers sometimes get scared straight by competition.

In case you missed the point, the subhead on Weigel's item was "How D.C.'s atrocious, corrupt, and outdated taxicab cartel lived to see another day."

After my cab ride in from the airport in DC tomorrow*, I'll look into this some more. Good news for columnists! This is the first story in years where no one could possibly fault you for using the tried-and-true "I was talking to a taxi driver, and he told me..." approach to get at the real news.
* I am speaking figuratively. Since I'll be arriving at Dulles Airport, I will in fact take a Washington Flyer cab -- a reliable and tightly regulated service that only handles runs to and from Dulles. It's when you arrive at National Airport, or Union Station, that you confront the crazy quilt that is the normal DC taxi system.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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