Photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

New car service Uber launched in DC in December, but has already run afoul of the Taxi Commission. Whether they’re doing anything illegal is unclear, but the service is definitely good for transportation in DC.

Uber allows people to book a trip in a for-hire car, without an advance reservation, using a mobile app. It offers an alternative to current taxis, but doesn’t compete directly for the vast majority of taxi rides because it costs significantly more than a cab, particularly for short trips. 

To say that Uber competes with cabs is like saying McDonalds competes with Bourbon Steak because they both serve hamburgers.

The concept is a positive step for an urban DC.  It offers yet another transportation option besides driving a personal car. Transit isn’t for everyone all the time, and if Uber lets a transit skeptic leave the car at home or get rid of it altogether, it’s a big win.

What’s more, Uber can actually improve the efficiency of “black cars,” the for-hire sedans which spend a large portion of the day idling.  While the Uber founder says they discourage drivers from accepting Uber trips while they are on a job, it is distinctly feasible to do with their system.

I used to live in Foggy Bottom, and when major summits came to town, the neighborhood would be covered with Town Cars and Tahoes with Virginia “For Hire” license plates. With the IMF, World Bank, and numerous upscale hotels in the area, the vehicles would sit idling all over Foggy Bottom and the West End. The cars often took up parking spaces for hours, double parking at times.

Uber gives them the ability to provide some trips instead of blocking lanes of traffic and every conceivable parking space.  This would be good for everyone.

Ironically, the limousine industry should be the one that is more concerned about Uber.  Their business is likely to change as long is Uber is around.  If someone can book a black car on-demand, pay a mileage-based rate, and then book another one for a return trip, without having to pay for time in between, why, except for the most demanding situations, would anyone bother to hire a car service?

What’s more, the taxi industry actually stands to benefit from the presence of Uber.  At peak times, such as New Years’ Eve, there are not enough cabs to go around, period.  Uber maintains their reliability by using “surge pricing” to price out many people and find those customers who are desperate, or well heeled, enough to pay for that reliability. 

At high traffic times, Uber takes some people who would have otherwise tried to hail a cab, leaving fewer people to fight over the limited cab supply, and ultimately making traveling by taxi cab easier and more reliable.

Lawyers, Uber, cabbies, the Taxi Commission, and possibly DC councilmembers will debate the legality of Uber’s operation in coming weeks. Residents should hope they come to a conclusion that lets the service, and others like it, keep running.