When Uber Came to Town

When Uber Came to Town

Many urban governments have outsourced public services to private entities. In Washington, D.C., Uber enlisted the city for its own goals.

D.C. taxi drivers park their cabs during a protest over rideshare regulations in 2014. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Silicon Valley companies sell themselves as innovation engines that offer solutions to the problems of urban life. But these tech giants do much more than promote and profit from technological change, they are part of a political project. This project, to quote former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, is about “changing how cities work.” Over the past decade companies like Uber have fought to secure market share, increase shareholder value, and change how we get around in cities. Underneath this façade, a political struggle is taking place for control over the economic and political power to decide what our cities should be like and who gets to decide. And no example better illustrates this struggle than the story of Uber in Washington, D.C.

On January 13, 2012, Ron Linton, the chair of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, ordered an Uber car from his smartphone. At the time, Uber was operating in only five other American cities. Linton, an eighty-two-year-old man who had spent six decades in local public service, including the police department, was frustrated. D.C.’s municipal government—the D.C. Council, the office of the attorney general, and the mayor—had yet to confront Uber about whether the company was breaking the law by offering a chauffeur service whose unlicensed livery drivers lacked commercial insurance policies and charged by mileage (instead of time). So, Linton took matters into his own hands. He scheduled an Uber ride to a hotel downtown. At the end of the ride, and just as planned, taxi enforcement officials were waiting. They issued the Uber driver a $1,650 fine and impounded the vehicle. Linton had set up and starred in his own sting.

Public debate arose immediately. While few denied that Uber’s operations in D.C. violated the law, the question remained: What should D.C. policymakers do about it? Three answers emerged: (1) change Uber to accommodate the law; (2) change the law to accommodate Uber; and (3) whatever is done, make sure the city does not appear to be anti-innovation.

Linton argued for the first option. In making his case, he found himself on shaky ground. While attacking Uber for breaking the law, he stood at the head of an organization with its own legal issues and with a questionable public-relations record. In 2009, the commission had been caught in an FBI investigation of thirty-nine taxi drivers charged with conspiracy to bribe officials for taxi-company licenses. Leon Swain Jr., Linton’s predecessor, who notoriously carried a gun to taxi-commission meetings, was fired for unknown reasons in 2011. Then, a few months later, the arrest of two journalists for taking photographs at one of the taxi commission’s supposedly public meetings added to the general sense that the taxi commission was corrupt.

Linton wanted Uber to agree to licenses, inspections, and other requirements akin to those for the taxi industry. “Regulations,” he wrote, “make sense out of chaos.” But Linton’s belief in the power of the government to regulate seemed old-fashioned. It made him not only a dinosaur in the age of apps but what author Vasily Grossman might call “a stepson of time.”

The second option for what to do about Uber was argued by David Alpert, a young Google retiree with a locally focused blog called Greater Greater Washington. Alpert was sympathetic to Uber and advocated to change local laws to accommodate the company. He wrote that his preference for Uber derived from a preference “to move the industry more away from regulation and toward an innovation model.” In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, Alpert said that if Uber was deemed illegal, “then something is wrong with the law, not with Uber.” He, like many other residents, despised the way taxis worked in the city. Taxis in D.C. were old; they were outdated; and, for many, they were a symbol of urban dysfunction. The city had tried multiple times to change the taxi system (by adding medallions) but failed. For some, this history served as strong evidence that the city was powerless over its taxi industry. Taxis did not adopt metered pricing until 2008 (which had made it difficult for passengers to estimate a fare). They did not have GPS trackers, often required cash payments (which irked the professional class), and offered only twenty wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the whole city. The mayor at the time reportedly joked that the uniform color for D.C. taxis was rust. A senior policy expert and city employee talked about the taxi industry as antiquated: “We didn’t want to drive the taxi industry out of business. But the taxi industry didn’t have a mobile app.”

On top of this host of complaints, D.C. taxis were notorious for ignoring street hails from Black customers and for avoiding Black neighborhoods altogether. During the Uber debates in 2012, one Black councilmember said: “Uber does come east of the river [to the poorer neighborhoods, those with majority Black populations] without hesitation. . . . For the fact that Uber does come out, I really do support them.” A policymaker who was deeply involved in Uber’s legislative battles in D.C. told us his spouse, as an African American, had similarly “absurd” experiences with taxis. In sum, taxis were seen as resistant to change, overregulated, and racist.

Five high-ranking city employees and elected policymakers who spoke with us represented the third option in the debates. The real question about Uber was less how to regulate it and more whether any regulation would make D.C. appear to be anti-tech. Local policymakers, apart from Linton, were “nervous about crossing these companies.” One such policymaker explained to us the problem that Uber posed: “Uber had just been kicking our ass in the court of public opinion. . . . They had made the administration out to look like we were dinosaurs; we were anti-innovation.” He went on:

The tech sector was really pushing this meme of disruption, regulatory disruption. And they weren’t necessarily wrong in the notion that the regulatory environment as it existed didn’t know how to accommodate these new innovations. But their answer was, “Throw it all out.” And our answer was, “That’s insane.” Maybe the regulatory framework has to adapt, but that doesn’t mean you throw it all out.

The lines of the debate had been drawn. On one side: the taxis, dinosaurs, legacy regulations, inefficiencies, and an outdated city. On the other side: Uber, innovators, efficiency, small government, the business community, and a city designed for the future. The Uber question became a referendum on innovation, the future of the city, and, fundamentally, regulation itself.


“Dawn of a New Local Politics”

When Uber arrived in 2011, the D.C. Council was already debating how, in its words, to “modernize” the local taxi industry. As a result, the question of what should be done about Uber was tangled up with the question of how to reform taxi services. The logic went like this: The taxi commission was bad. Taxi services were poor. Thus, Uber, which challenged both the taxi commission and taxi drivers, was, by default, good. If you were against Uber, then you were for taxis, you were pro-regulation, and you were an enemy of progress. At a hearing about Uber, a councilmember making the case for Uber said: “We should be embracing more of this technology. . . . If regulation meant high quality service at a good value, then D.C. would have the best service in the nation.”

In these debates, a different councilmember tried to add nuance. It was none other than Marion Barry, the septuagenarian who had served four terms as D.C. mayor. Barry was, as he would describe himself, “a friend of the taxi industry,” which until the 1970s had been dominated by the local African-American community but had since shifted to a niche occupation among first-generation immigrants. At a hearing, he said that on a recent evening he had been unable to get a taxi to come to his address in the Southeast area of D.C. But he argued that chauffeur services needed more, not less, regulation to address these discriminatory practices. “How can you,” he asked, “have a company [like Uber] that is unregulated” completely? D.C. was about to find out.

In the summer of 2012, the D.C. Council debated several issues in preparation for a final bill on Uber. During this period, Uber negotiated with council staff about a ban on surge pricing, a requirement for 10 percent of Uber’s fleet (and those of its competitors) to be wheelchair accessible, and the possibility of a price floor for Uber rides. But, on the evening before a hearing on the bill, in what would be a surprise for councilmembers, Uber shifted gears on a decision to support a mutually agreeable price minimum. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said: “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.” At the hearing, he also said, “When you tell us how to do business and you tell us we can’t charge lower fares, you are fighting with us.” Through “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the company mobilized its users—via in-app messages and direct emails—to ask the council to remove the price minimum. Kalanick sent an email titled “Un-independence” to every single Uber customer in D.C., with a request that they help prevent the price minimum by emailing and tweeting every councilmember. Over the next twenty-four hours, a reported 50,000 emails and 37,000 tweets with the hashtag #UberDCLove were sent to the council. On Twitter, the term “UberDC” was used 800,000 times in less than an hour. And the tactic worked. The next day, the price minimum was struck from the proposal. The Washington Post described the action as a “rider revolt.” On its blog, Uber posted a write-up about its success in D.C., boasting, “Never underestimate the power of thousands of loyal supporters armed with email, social media, and a cause.” Brand loyalty had transformed into a new version of active political citizenship.

That same day, a venture capitalist and early Uber investor tweeted something similar: “What happened today with @Uber & DC is dawn of a new local politics: Tech/social exercising newfound muscles on a policy level in real-time.” Bloomberg News editor and author Brad Stone agreed: “Uber had flexed its political muscles for the first time, and won. A new tactic was then added to the playbook: when traditional advocacy failed, Uber could mobilize its user base and direct their passion toward elected officials.” This tactic represented a victory over the old local politics, which found no better representation than Linton. Officials had called Linton’s sting “embarrassing,” “silly,” and “a huge black eye” for the city. What made Linton’s sting so embarrassing was not the operation itself but his belief that D.C. government might actually govern Uber.

In November 2012, Mary Cheh, the D.C. Council member who was shepherding Uber’s proposed legislation—the Public Vehicle-for-Hire Innovation Amendment Act of 2012—urged the other councilmembers to adopt her committee’s bill. In a letter to them, she wrote: “Through this legislation, we can support innovation in the public vehicle-for-hire industry by decreasing regulation and encouraging competition, which will ultimately improve the quality and reliability of service for District residents.” The next month, D.C. policymakers unanimously passed the law, which created a new class of chauffeur services defined by “digital dispatch.” What was remarkable about the legislation was the exemption it created. Uber was awarded its own business category and exempted from existing taxi regulations and taxi commission oversight. As the Washington Post put it, Uber had won “the battle between sainted innovators and evil regulators and [successfully] pushed the idea that Uber should operate wholly free of government interference.” The new ride-hailing law would have, the Post continued, “little practical effect” on Uber’s operations in the city. The Post described the outcome as evidence that “the system worked . . . grievances were redressed in a mutually agreeable manner. . . . Woo, democracy.” On Twitter, Kalanick used the hashtag #UberDemocracy. Elsewhere he said D.C. had set “a standard for how other cities should be looking at this kind of innovation” and “will serve as an innovative model for city transportation legislation across the country.”

To the libertarian magazine Reason, Uber was the underdog that had almost been run over by Linton’s “regulatory establishment.” In an eleven-minute documentary titled Uber Wars: How D.C. Tried to Kill a Great New Ride Technology, which three local media outlets covered, Reason characterized Linton as part of a big “embedded bureaucracy” that was “accidentally repressive” of new small businesses, meaning Uber drivers. These arguments were not new. Hubert Horan—an early and, in retrospect, prescient observer of the ride-hailing industry—traces Uber’s playbook to the taxi deregulatory campaigns launched in the 1990s by Charles and David Koch, who, not coincidentally, are funders of Reason.

In Uber Wars, when Linton is shown, he is in the corner of a poorly lit office. The video footage is grainy, there is no music, and Linton looks washed out, motionless, and every bit the gray, bureaucratic state functionary. In comparison, the narrator appears energetic as he quickly walks down a street under bright natural lighting. If the narrator was pushing D.C. toward the future, Linton was holding it back. A few years later, a Washingtonian obituary of Linton indeed described him as “the face of anti-innovation.”

Uber consultant Bradley Tusk, who claims to have written the D.C. legislation, described the 2012 victory in D.C. as a win about the broader notion of government itself: Uber “disrupt[ed] the status quo of governing.” Indeed, Uber officially became a “regulatory entrepreneur,” a company for which rewriting laws, as opposed to simply currying favor through traditional lobbying, is a significant part of its development plan. But something else took place too: Uber, in this first period of D.C. legislative debates, helped limit whose rights count.

Uber intervened in the realm of people’s “common-sense” ideas of what cities can and should be. These ideas include where public transit goes, what constitutes a good job, how cities use data, and the nature of racial justice. Uber’s success in D.C.—and the success of the “new local politics” it catalyzed—is evidenced not only by the sheer number of people who seem eager to look to anything other than formal democratic politics as a way of solving urban problems but also by how many look to Uber for those solutions.


A Perverse Victory

In the landmark book Uberland, tech writer Alex Rosenblat documents informational asymmetries between Uber drivers and the company. What we find in D.C. is a wholly different set of informational asymmetries, which in this case exist between the company and the city. An economic-development expert and former city employee pointed out to us the irony of this arrangement: “I frankly think it’s hypocritical of Uber and Lyft to say ‘We are partners of cities’ while systematically undermining the ability of their elected officials to actually manage how these services fit into the milieu.”

Zack, one of Uber’s lobbyists for D.C. with whom we spoke, described the D.C. law as “our foundational legislation.” When asked how D.C. ended up, in his words, with “the most welcoming and the most friendly” laws in the country, Zack told us: D.C. “adopted our view of the world, I think. And that’s why it’s one of the best models for us.” When probed on what that worldview was, he said it was one in which Uber would “set the standards.” He went on, “We can do all those functions that a regulator would, but we can do it at the pace of business.” He then said:

We take on all the responsibility of making sure that all the people that we partner with are vetted. . . . Rather than kicking that over to a regulator, who then would spend a lot of time trying to vet each individual driver and might or might not do that with the best of intentions. Because traditionally, a lot of regulators were captured by the industry because they had a vested interest in protecting the traditional industry and protecting a lot of the jobs associated with regulating that industry.

The idea here is simple: D.C. trusted Uber to regulate itself—because Uber, presumably, promised solutions for a city that craved innovation while struggling, as many do, to build and maintain adequate transit systems, including taxi services. Zack stressed to us that D.C.’s law conforms “pretty well to that view of the world, and that’s what we’ve been advocating for across the country.” Uber’s regional manager in D.C. similarly celebrated the city’s legislative achievements as the result of a mutual outlook: “We’ve been fortunate enough to align with leaders who see what is happening in the future. The District and the state of Virginia have been innovators nationally and on this issue it is the same.” By presenting regulation as antithetical to innovation, Uber’s political project to dissuade regulatory oversight in D.C. and elsewhere speaks to a set of broader ideals, not just immediate questions of how policymakers should contend with new technologies that enable on-demand chauffeur services. In D.C., Uber raised a question not unlike the ones critical urban scholars have asked for decades: What do we expect from our cities and their policymakers? Who should oversee what? Who should be accountable to whom? Does regulation as we know it (and as Linton tried to devise it) still make sense in the age of apps?


Just Let Uber Do It

In January 2016, we went to a meeting inside Uber’s corporate office on Rhode Island Avenue Northwest in downtown D.C. There, we met with an employee who had joined the company two years earlier to work on its international expansion. He had agreed to speak with us about Uber’s operations, though D.C. wasn’t his area of focus. In that conversation, he used a phrase that we hadn’t heard before. He explained that Uber’s “playbook” for entering new markets involved removing “legacy regulations.” At first we weren’t sure what he meant. By the end of the interview, the answer became clear: the old urban politics and its municipal regulations were relics of a bygone era. Uber promised a future freed from such constraints.

Urban governance in the age of Uber has its roots in outsourcing, public-private partnerships, and the broad shift toward decentralized and distributed governance. But there is something else afoot. D.C. presents a slightly different model of the city—one that is less open and more opaque. In a public-private partnership, the city enlists the private sector to join efforts. The case of D.C. is the opposite: Uber enlists the city, just as it does drivers, as its partner.

Uber’s power in D.C. has major implications for how urban governance is done, which publics are prioritized, and what kind of infrastructure gets created. The strategies Uber uses to advance its sovereignty undergirds a worldview in which the public good is of less and less import and in which regulation, as a safeguard for the public good, is seen as antiquated. Uber’s operations in the city lay bare a relinquishment of power from the city to this private entity. Low expectations of democratic government go hand in hand with this power shift and the constrained forms of urban governance it benefits from and contributes to. Today’s leaders hope that platform apps can deliver to individuals what they believe D.C. itself no longer can.

To ensure accessible transportation or enable governmental oversight of private corporations at an urban scale is far from easy. It is hard work to live among strangers on land that is contested, saturated with conflicting uses, and subject to a host of financial pressures. That is, however, the task of living in urban spaces and governing them. Governance is a kind of unending practice, like teaching or parenting, with conflicts that require all sorts of negotiations, discussions, and renegotiations. To live with others, whether in a classroom, in a family, in a community, or at the scale of a city, necessitates collective agreements, rule-making, and ideally some kind of democratic principles. Linton tried to offer a warning about what lies ahead if we abandon those. In this regard, Linton is less a regulatory dinosaur than a canary in the coal mine of an innovation-obsessed city where just let Uber do it has become common sense.

Katie J. Wells is a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University.

Kafui Attoh is associate professor of urban studies at the School of Labor and Urban Studies at the City University of New York.

Declan Cullen is assistant professor of geography at George Washington University.

Excerpted from DISRUPTING D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City by Katie J. Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen. Copyright
© 2023 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.