Photo by Dkmelo on Flickr.

“Sedan” cars like the ones the popular car service Uber uses, and any electronic apps that help people book either sedans or traditional taxis, would gain protection from most regulation under a proposal by Councilmember Mary Cheh.

Cheh (ward 3), the chair of the committee that oversees transportation, released the “committee print” of her bill to legalize services like Uber. The committee will mark up the bill on Friday.

The bill, now entitled the Public Vehicle-for-hire Innovation Amendment Act of 2012, has a new section explicitly exempting most “digital dispatch services” from regulation by the DC Taxicab Commission. DCTC can still impose some requirements on “digital dispatch services,” like Uber, Taxi Magic, Taxi Radar, or Hailo, but only for certain purposes:

  • Geography: Dispatch services can only use vehicles licensed in DC, or non-DC vehicles for trips to or from those other jurisdictions (a regional body, WMATC, which is totally different from WMATA, regulates these interstate trips.) However, DCTC also has to start licensing new drivers and vehicles.
  • Equity: The services and drivers will have to serve all parts of DC, and otherwise not discriminate against any passengers.
  • Receipts: Riders have to get an electronic or paper receipt after the trip. But unlike with the DCTC’s proposed regulations, the service can choose; Uber, which gives everyone an electronic receipt, won’t have to also add printers to every vehicle. Other services could use paper instead if they wished.
  • Transparent fares: Services will have to clearly tell riders about their pricing system, and give riders an estimate of the fare when they book. Uber doesn’t do this now, but CEO Travis Kalanick said at the recent hearing that they were working on adding it already.


Services will also have to give DCTC regular data dumps of where their various trips started and ended, their times, etc. but no personal information about the rider. This could let DCTC better understand demand patterns, and perhaps they can ultimately release data files publicly, like Capital Bikeshare has done.

The bill does ban one current Uber practice: drivers rating passengers. Uber’s system lets passengers give drivers a rating after their trip, which helps future passengers choose among drivers, but it also lets drivers rate their passengers. Cheh is concerned this could help drivers discriminate among passengers who want to go to unpopular locations, because of their background, or for other such reasons.

As for sedans, DCTC can regulate them to ensure they are safe or to protect consumers from fraud, but its regulatory power is otherwise limited. DCTC can also collect the same trip data from sedans. (They will get that data from taxis as well through the new electronic meters that recent legislation required for all taxis.)

Taxi companies would be able to operate both sedans and cabs, and drivers could even get a single license letting them drive both types of cars, but the cars themselves would remain separate. All taxis will be one uniform color beginning next summer, while sedans will remain black and more luxurious.

This keeps a strict separation between taxis, which are one type of vehicle that look one way and charge fixed rates, and sedans, whose rates aren’t regulated. It means taxi companies can’t start competing on value and raise prices, but it makes it more likely that the current taxi market remains largely as is while enabling services like Uber.

It also hopefully keeps the DCTC from going overboard with silly requirements for sedan services or taxi dispatch apps. These apps and services represent the best chance to bring new innovations and better service to potential riders.

I’ve reached out to Uber for comment about whether they support the bill, but hadn’t yet heard back. I’ll update this post if they respond.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.