Testifying last week before the D.C. Council, 35-year-old Uber CEO Travis Kalanick routinely interrupted councilmembers and espoused a right-wing ideology. Uber is not so much a luxury sedan service as a phone app that connects passengers with black cars (while taking 20 percent of each fare). “We’re a tech company,” Kalanick said at a talk at the Heritage Foundation in December. “I don’t have any drivers, and I don’t have any cars.”
While the drivers Uber contracts with compete directly with D.C.’s highly regulated taxicabs, Uber is seeking to remain unregulated, a situation Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham called a “fundamental inequity.” “The taxicab industry drivers and Uber drivers are in the same line of business and competing for the same customer base,” said Haimanot Bizuayehu, board member of The Small Business Association of DC Taxicab Drivers (SBA), D.C.’s largest cabbie organization. At the Heritage Foundation, Kalanick offered a similar assessment, saying, “We changed our name from Uber Cab to Uber so we’re no longer marketing ourselves as a cab company.”
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh is chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation, which held last week’s hearing on whether and how to regulate app-driven luxury sedan services like Uber. Cheh expressed concern over Uber’s variable pricing model. “I’m curious about whether that is somehow a kind of gouging. If there’s more demand, why should the rider have to pay more money?” asked Cheh.
Kalanick told Cheh that attempts to regulate Uber’s pricing reminded him of “communist Russia” where “there were long lines for toilet paper” due to government price controls. “Everybody could afford toilet paper but they could never get it because there were too many people that wanted it and not enough people willing to supply it,” he said.
“That’s kind of the situation that gets created when you’re not able to change the price,” said Kalanick. “Look, price controls by governments, they don’t always go well. In fact, I’d say 99 percent of the documented cases don’t go well.”
Graham, who showed little patience for Kalanick’s right-wing philosophies, sought answers to how Uber operates in the District. When asked how many drivers Uber contracts with in D.C., Kalanick said, “We’re in the hundreds… It’s not low hundreds and it’s not high hundreds.” When Graham asked Kalanick how he determined the number of drivers to contract with, the Uber CEO responded, “How does the ice cream store know how much ice cream to get? He just figures it out and he buys some freakin’ ice cream.”
“Who would say that to the Council at a public hearing?” asked D.C. advisory neighborhood commission member Tony Norman, who called Kalanick’s behavior “arrogant.” Along with TheFightBack‘s Pete Tucker, Norman co-hosts The Taxi Link which airs on WUST 1120 AM and is sponsored by the SBA. “Uber needs to be regulated,” said Norman.
“Regulate them or deregulate us,” Bizuayehu said on The Taxi Link. “What we are opposing is not innovation. What we are opposing is not modernization. What we are asking is to be fair.”
In his testimony, Kalanick said Uber drivers are not allowed to compete with taxis for street hails. “No Uber can go pick up a customer who puts their hand out,” said Kalanick. Many cabbies, however, say the company’s rhetoric and its practice differ. “[We] see it every day,” said Bizuayehu. “Uber drivers are taking our fares from street hails, from in front of restaurants and hotels.”
“You can’t have competition,” said Graham, “where one party is unbridled and able to do whatever they please, whenever they want to do it, and the other party has their hands and feet tied.”