Uber, a San Francisco-based startup company that provides on-demand private drivers to customers through its smartphone app, has had an especially bumpy ride since launching in Washington, D.C. in December 2011.
But things are looking up now that the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to exempt Uber from the D.C. Taxicab Commission’s regulatory grasp, at least through the end of the year, as the blog DCist first reported.
The Council passed an amendment carving out an exemption specifically for “a business that uses a mobile phone application to connect its users to sedan service,” so long as the business provides customers with estimated fares and the fare calculation method ahead of time, receipts, and uses licensed sedans, all of which Uber does already.
The news means that Uber, which contracts drivers of luxury sedans and soon, less swanky cars, will be able to continue offering fares below those of cabs, without having to worry about running afoul of D.C. taxicab regulations or their enforcers.
The D.C. Taxicab Commission had been after Uber almost from the moment the disruptive cab alternative launched in the District, with Chairman Ron Linton staging a high-profile “sting” on one of the company’s contractor drivers in January, fining the driver and impounding his vehicle for allegedly running afoul of D.C. taxi regulations, specifically the fact that driver was charging by mileage, which only cabs are allowed to do, and he should have been charging by time. Tech blogs and Uber fans cried foul, with some accusing the D.C. Taxicab Commission of cronyism.
Since then, Uber has been in a war of words with not only the Commission, but the D.C. Council as well, which, in a fit of ironic timing, was also simultaneously pursuing a plan to update the District’s taxicab regulations to require cab drivers to install GPS devices, panic buttons, and comply with a host of other standardization efforts.
While Uber’s current minimum ride price rates in D.C. would fall within this range, the minimum fare would seem to prohibit a new, 35 percent less expensive service called UberX, which allows riders to choose from several kinds of cars and was just launched by the company in early July 2012.
Uber seems to have escaped the worst outcome of being able to operate in D.C., though, following the news this morning, via DCist, that the proposed minimum fare amendment was tabled by its sponsor, D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, following a flood of public complaints that the amendment was crafted without sufficient input from Uber, despite Cheh’s claims to the contrary.
Specifically, Uber contended that “The Council’s intention is to prevent Uber from being a viable alternative to taxis… the goal is essentially to protect a taxi industry that has significant experience in influencing local politicians,” as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in an official Uber blog post on Monday.
But Uber supporters rallied en masse, deluging the Council with letters of support and denunciations of the proposed minimum fare amendment. Uber also launched an online petition drawing over 4,000 signatures in support of killing the minimum fare language.
That coordinated front prompted two council members, Jack Evans and Tommy Wells, to introduce a new amendment striking the minimum fare language, which the Council approved on Tuesday afternoon.
Uber, which counts U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) among its fans, did not respond to request for comment in time for the publication of this article.