A possible preview of things to come, courtesy of our neighbors to the north.
Uber pulled into Dallas in one year ago, offering residents a ride with a few taps of an app. Drunk or stuck or just not sure where you are? Fine by Uber, which uses your smartphone’s GPS to track you down, send you the flat rate for getting from Here to There, and dispatch a nearby car-service driver, whose progress you can follow to all the way to the pick-up point.
Sounds like quite the ride, but Uber has always maintained: “Uber is not a transportation provider,” per The Fine Print. It maintains it’s a tech company that just makes it easier for drivers and passengers to connect, which is how, much to the chagrin of cab companies, it has skirted cities’ rules and regulations that steer the car-for-hire business.
Dallas City Hall aims to change that.
Per a late addition to Wednesday’s meeting agenda, the Dallas City Council is scheduled to vote on a substantial city code rewrite that will redefine everything from who can dispatch a car to who can drive a limo to the cost of a limousine’s off-the-lot sticker price (has to be more than $45,000). And the city doesn’t want you to be able to order up a limo whenever you want: The rewrite, says the addendum, will “require limousine service to be prearranged at least 30 minutes before the service is provided” and establish “minimum limousine fares.”
The addendum item doesn’t come out and say it’s aimed directly at Uber, only that “the use of computer applications and other technologies by some providers of limousine service has distorted certain distinctions between limousines and taxicabs,” and that it’s high time the city “establish those distinctions to help the public understand the differences between those types of passenger transportation services.” City Hall also wants to be able to regulate drivers being dispatched via app.
Uber’s currently fighting a battle in Washington, D.C., over the size of its newly launched taxi service, which uses hybrids. Regulators in the District of Columbia rewrote laws in order to define what is and isn’t a cab. Earlier this summer, the Federal Trade Commission said doing so would “unnecessarily impede competition.”
And that’s ultimately what the dust-up in Dallas is all about.
In September Yellow Cab President and CEO Jack Bewley said Uber is using the app “to skirt the regulations.” And in January, Saied Rafie, owner of Cowboy Cab, insisted Uber “is basically an illegal operation” viewed by his industry as nothing more than “organized Gypsy cabs.” Cab owners in the U.S. and Europe have been trying for months to crack-down on these app-driver start-ups.
That hasn’t hurt Uber’s ability to raise money: At week’s end, in a post since deleted, the company said it raised $258 million during its latest round of cash-collecting, and that Google’s senior vice president of development now has a spot on its board. It is said to be valued around $3 billion. Some of that money has gone toward fending off legal challenges aimed at keeping Uber off the road, like the case in Cambridge, Massachusetts — which Uber won in June.
See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the state of the debate in Houston. As I said before, I believe there is a way forward in Houston for both Uber and the existing cab companies. We should still keep an eye on the experience elsewhere, and learn from it as best we can.