Our Man in Arlington

July 14, 2014 12:43 PM0 comments

clark-fcnpThe global collision between the traditional taxi industry and the Uber and Lyft upstarts is playing out on Arlington streets.

The struggle pits longtime hackers against rookies, youthful innovation against ingrained habits, and free-marketers against regulators – all set in motion by technological disruption.

Last month, county police issued five citations to ride-sharing drivers affiliated with the new mobile-device-summoned, mostly high-end-vehicle trendy services. That followed a cease-and-desist order from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said the drivers were initially cited for breaking traffic laws. But it became clear Uber and Lyft drivers were violating state restrictions on operating a taxi company without a license.

The DMV insists it “supports innovation. The agency has been in communications with Uber and Lyft for months to educate them on Virginia’s law with the goal of bringing them into compliance so that they can operate lawfully in Virginia,” it said. The General Assembly has ordered a study to create a solution, and it hopes all the companies will participate.

Rachel Holt, Uber’s regional general manager, declared the state’s position “shocking. Uber has been providing Virginians with safe, affordable and reliable transportation options for months and has continued to work in good faith with the DMV to create a regulatory framework for ridesharing,” she said. “The DMV decision hurts thousands of small business entrepreneurs who rely on the Uber platform to make a living, create new jobs and contribute to the economy – and it hurts countless residents who rely on Uber.”

The dust-up prompted County Board Chairman Jay Fisette to dip a toe in the issue’s water, but not to take a position. “We have the taxi industry, a regulated industry, created for consumer protection,” he said, according to ARLNow. “When it wasn’t regulated, quality went down and risk for customers went up.” Yet, Fisette added, the new services “provide some outstanding customer service and ease of use. It’s convenient, and that customer friendliness and innovation has helped them create a market.”

Uber, launched five years ago in San Francisco, has a website offering exciting rhetoric and videos but few details on rigors of training requirements. “Uber is evolving the way the world moves,” it says. “By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible.” The firm is temporarily slashing prices.

The touch-screen taxis have become a cause célèbre among conservatives. In a June National Review piece, John Fund praised Uber’s “better, tech-savvy mousetrap … straight out of the ‘creative destruction’ model” of economist Joseph Schumpeter.

But regulation is coming. New York State just required Uber to cap fares during emergencies. And if you ask any drivers of traditional cabs – who’ve been struggling for years to make today’s profession survivable — they mock the online entrepreneurs as poorly trained, opportunistic amateurs.

Charlie King, vice president of Red Top Cab, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, says the new kids on the block “portray us as dinosaurs, but we’re happy to have the competition. We all benefit from technology,” he told me. “We’ve been dispatching by computer for 20 years, and have own our app.”

This veteran acknowledges anecdotally that his fleet has recently lost some ridership. Red Top and Arlington’s six other companies are working with the county, King says, to press the newcomer chauffeurs to “compete on a reasonably level playing field.”

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