D.C. Taxicab Commission should reverse course and re-legalize UberX

Uber recently launched their new uberX service in Washington, D.C. and immediately facedopposition from the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission. UberX is similar to Uber’s black sedan product, except it matches users with a hybrid car at a lower price point. Uber regularly faces opposition from regulators when entering new markets, but Uber’s original business model was formally legalized by the District Council earlier this year.

Ron Linton, chairman of the commission, claimed that hybrid vehicles can’t be classified as sedans under D.C. law, possibly making uberX illegal, but at the time, the D.C. code contained no such distinction.

Until today, that is. The commission took matters into their own hands and effectively banned uberX from D.C.  It seems like yet another example of regulators proposing new rules in search of a problem that might not actually exist.

Given Uber’s good track record, why did the commission go after uberX? ”It would be allowing a taxi-[like] vehicle essentially to run unregulated against… a taxi that is regulated. That simply doesn’t make sense to me,” said Linton.

It might not make sense to him, but let’s see how Uber’s internal regulations stack up with those provided by the Taxicab Commission.

The regulatory model offered by the commission is pretty standard and has five main features:

  1. Licensing drivers allows the commission to run background checks on people who want to drive cabs. The physical license, mandated to be displayed at all times, gives consumers a way to report a specific driver for misconduct.
  2. Meters let passengers know how far the taxi has traveled, and how much they are expected to pay.
  3. Basic standards on vehicle quality and business practice (including rules like not denying rides based on destination or race) let passengers know what to expect, and are supposed to deliver high quality service.
  4. Drivers are required to keep an accurate log of all rides, and issue customers receipts, which can be used in later disputes.
  5. The commission has roving inspectors, though the are off duty after midnight.

In a world without cell phones, GPS, or computers and only a small number of cab drivers, this might be the best possible regulatory model. In a city with thousands of taxis, these regulations have failed to protect consumers.

Drivers routinely drive without displaying their license, leaving passengers without the necessary information to pursue a complaint. It’s very difficult for a passenger to tell if a meter is functioning correctly, and those who aren’t versed in taxi regulations can’t tell if the driver entered the correct amount of extra charges unless he is also displaying the required information. Drivers almost never issue actual receipts, and instead give passengers blank forms. All of these problems were spotted in a recent investigation by WUSA9.

In two separate investigations, WUSA9 confirmed what everyone knows: cabbies will often refuse to pick up black or disabled customers. According to Clinton Yates, “Uber increases the quality of  life for those of us who are regularly dissed by taxi drivers.” For all their efforts, the D.C. Taxicab Commission has been unable to deliver what their regulations promise.

Uber takes a different approach to regulation with both their standard black sedan and uberX services.

  1. The meter, log and payment system is replaced by smart phones. The phones connect the driver and passenger, track the path of the car and send payment.
  2. Uber later emails the customer a detailed receipt that includes a map of the car’s path and an explanation of charges.
  3. Passengers rate drivers, and drivers rate passengers. People who are dishonest or treat others poorly are removed from the service. Whether or not a license is displayed, the passenger knows exactly with whom he or she is dealing.
  4. If a driver takes a bad route to increase the fare, Uber will offer refunds to customers.
  5. Uber drivers and their vehicles are often licensed outside of the district, but Uber conducts their own background check and training process.

Uber doesn’t own cars or employ drivers. Rather, they work with independent drivers or companies that own fleets of vehicles. Unlike the Taxicab Commission, they have a strong financial incentive to make sure passengers have a positive experience. If Uber set standards as low as the commission does, it would go out of business. If the commission set standards as high as Uber does, it might face political pressure from elected officials, for whom taxi drivers are an important constituency.

The commission itself hasn’t licensed sedan drivers or vehicles in several years, effectively outsourcing sedan regulation to other jurisdictions. The commission says it is going to start licensing sedans and drivers again, which would mean that they will no longer be able to be licensed out of state and operate within the District. Combined with the recently passed regulations on sedan size, it seems that the commission is making changes solely to stop uberX from competing with cabs.

In a few short years, Uber has done a much better job of ensuring that D.C. residents have access to pleasant for-hire rides at a fair price than the D.C. Taxicab Commission could possibly hope for. If district regulation of for-hire vehicles is designed to protect consumers, then UberX should clearly be allowed to operate.

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National Capital Planning Commission gives mild consideration to marginal changes to Height Act

Under current federal law, buildings in the District of Columbia can be no taller than 130 feet, save for a short section of Pennsylvania Avenue NW where buildings can reach up to 160 feet.

The National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning have been working on a three-phase study of potential economic and aesthetic changes that would result if Congress were to allow slightly-taller buildings in some areas of the district. One part of the study focuses on the economic feasibility of building taller buildings, while another, conducted by DCOP, focuses on visually modeling changes to the D.C. skyline and views from important vantage points from around the region. The models attempt to give D.C. residents and stakeholders an idea of what the district would look like with buildings up to 225 feet tall. While it is encouraging to see discussions about easing height restrictions in DC, the study suffers from both from an unambitious vision, and a structure that largely determined the outcome of the project before any analysis took place.

No Burj Khalifa in Glover Park

Graphic by the DC Office of Planning

The visual modeling study does get several things right. First, it correctly assumes that tall buildings will not be built in historic districts, federally owned properties, very low-density areas, historic sites, parks, and other designated open spaces. See the graphic provided by DCOP to the left. NIMBYs sometimes raise the alarm about extremely unlikely outcomes from repealing the Height Act, and it’s important for people to know that the Burj Khalifa isn’t coming to Glover Park for both economic reasons and policy reasons.

Second, the study also provides lots of interesting views (certainly worth clicking through to get a sense of the study), and analysis of areas in which buildings are already up against the maximum height allowed by Congress. After all, the existence of taller buildings is one economic indicator for where actually tall buildings might be built in the absence of height restrictions.

The modeling study also had several serious drawbacks, some of which drastically lower the value of the entire effort.

The NCPC began with three “principles”:.

Principle 1. Ensure the prominence of the federal landmarks and monuments by preserving their views and setting

Principle 2. Maintain the horizontality of the monumental skyline

Principle 3. Minimize negative impacts to nationally significant historic resources, including the L’Enfant Plan

The first principle basically excludes changing much of anything. The second necessarily requires a height restriction low enough to encompass several miles of development. The third is too broad to have much meaning on its own. None were subjected to serious cost-benefit analysis before deciding that they are worthwhile principles to guide future policy in the district. The problematic nature of the principles unfortunately had a direct effect on the quality of the visual modeling efforts.

Much of the Phase 2 presentation focuses on views that, while interesting, don’t help viewers understand what it will be like to live in a city with taller buildings. For example, see this shot from the Air Force Memorial in Virginia:

500 feet above the Air Force Memorial

Graphic from the DC Office of Planning

At first glance, it seems like the monuments and skyline are the central features of the view from the Air Force Memorial. However, this is taken from 500 feet above the actual memorial itself with a very nice camera lens. Unless you rent a helicopter, gain access to heavily restricted airspace, and have excellent vision, you will never actually experience this view.

This photo I took shows the view from the Air Force Memorial as actually experienced by visitors:

Small trees threaten federal interests in sight lines and skyline horizontality.

At 555 feet tall–more than double the highest building considered in the modeling study–most of the Washington Monument was obscured by small trees until I made an effort to get it into the frame. You might assume that the Capitol dome is also entirely obscured, but because it is such an insignificant part of the skyline from this distance, it is scarcely visible at all. With unlimited building heights it is possible that the Capitol would be obscured entirely, but it’s also important to note that there is not a single building between the Washington Monument and the Air Force Memorial. People visiting the Air Force Memorial wouldn’t have their view ruined by taller buildings, if they noticed them at all.

Similar criticisms could be made of most of the other vantage points included in the visual modeling study. The view from Meridian Hill Park seems to change drastically from a perspective high in the air, but only the tip of the Washington Monument is visible if you actually stand in the park (again, assuming the trees have been recently trimmed). Not much changes when the buildings are raised to max height. Kudos to the authors of the study for including several street-level perspectives, but what they routinely demonstrate is that views of historic sites are largely unaffected by taller buildings.

This raises the rather obvious question of why major building restrictions for the entire District of Columbia are being based, in large part, on views  from perspectives that most of us will only experience in the form of a postcard. Even if allowing taller buildings drastically alters the view from Virginia or parts of the district far away from the National Mall, this potentially negative outcome should be weighed against the rather large costs of current restrictions. Height restrictions cause longer commutes, higher rents, lower real incomes, and less diverse urban areas. How much money should we spend and how many people should we displace so that someone can catch a fleeting glimpse of the Washington Monument from miles away?

If the NCPC is considering changes to our height restrictions, why not model what it would look like if the height limit varied based on distance from the National Mall? For example, buildings could either conform to the Height Act, or build one foot of height for every five feet it is from Constitution Ave. This would preserve the look of the National Mall and areas surrounding national historic sites while still allowing tall buildings in the central business district. That would be a visual model worth building.

NCPC study aside, easing height restrictions in the district is clearly good policy. Doing so is a necessary but insufficient condition for tall buildings. Without serious amendments to D.C. zoning regulations on floor-area ratios, parking minimums, and setback requirements we still wouldn’t have any. Removing height restrictions would simply put control of planning in local hands.

Correction: The Height Master Plan is a joint study being conducted by NCPC and the DC Office of Planning, not by NCPC alone. The post has been updated to reflect this.