Upstart Car Service Butts Heads With D.C.'s Taxis

Customers have many complaints against the cabs in Washington, D.C., including not all of them take credit cards. But a new service has taken the city by surprise including the cab commission. The service is called Uber and you can request a car from a mobile phone and pay for it by credit card.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's investigate another story about power in the nation's capital - the power to call a cab. A service that's spread to several cities lets you summon a car using a smartphone. Uber was welcomed in a place where people complain of waiting forever when they call a cab. But Washington, D.C., is also the latest city where Uber has run into trouble. Its business model does not quite fit into local taxi regulations. Our colleague David Greene explains.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: I'm sitting outside this cafe in Washington. I need to get to work, and I pulled up the Uber app on my iPhone. It found me on the map. I hit "set pickup location here." And I see this black car that's getting closer and closer to my location on the map.

And it says: Your driver is en route; his name is Eyob, and he's going to arrive in about four minutes.

How are you doing?

EYOB TULU: Pretty good. How are you?

GREENE: Good, thank you very much.

GREENE: It all seems so easy - except that drivers like Eyob Tulu are jittery these days. It's because of what happened a few weeks ago. A driver who contracts with Uber fell into a trap that was set by city officials. They stopped him, impounded his car, and fined him for operating an illegal taxi.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You're watching ABC-7 News at 5...

GREENE: It was all over local news.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here at the Mayflower Hotel this morning, there was a sting. Nothing as dramatic as years ago, you recall, with Eliot Spitzer and the call girls. This was a company called Uber, which is competing with D.C. cabs. And the head of the taxi cab commission himself came here, to try to put them out of business.

GREENE: The head of the taxi commission is a man named Ron Linton, and I went to see him in his office.

RON LINTON: The term "sting " is the media term, not our term.

GREENE: You didn't call it a sting.

LINTON: We don't call it a sting. We call it a test ride.

GREENE: Whatever you call it, it made Linton pretty unpopular. Uber users have trashed him online, accused him of stifling progress. And they've called his personal cellphone to rant. Linton says he's just defending a law that requires cars that charge by time and distance to be licensed as metered taxis.

He says he's moving as quickly as he can to put credit card machines in D.C. cabs and make them - well, more Uber-like. Linton says Uber just came out of nowhere, and didn't talk to the city about local regulations.

LINTON: That sort of made our antenna go up, as to what are we dealing with here?

GREENE: And that's the deeper question. How does a city deal with a hot-shot, start-up company that lands in town and starts providing a basic service really well?

LINTON: I find it a bit odd that they would have a big party - that I understand they're holding tonight - to celebrate, in their words, their victory over the rule of law in the District of Columbia. It seems a little arrogant to me.

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GREENE: This Uber event was the other night at a flashy nightclub. Hundreds of Uber customers who RSVP'd were sipping on free cocktails. I found Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick in the crowd.

How old are you?

TRAVIS KALANICK: I'm 35.

GREENE: And when did you start the company?

KALANICK: Uh, let's see - it was 2009.

GREENE: He was in San Francisco at the time, frustrated when he couldn't find a taxi. Now Uber, his company, is in a handful of cities. And Kalanick says he's showing how quickly technology can transform the way of life in a city.

KALANICK: I'm pretty damn sure that in five years, we're going to be an integral part of the fabric and transportation system that is in D.C.

GREENE: When he got up to speak to his crowd of Uber fans, he showed a photo of the man standing in his way - the taxi commissioner.

KALANICK: So there's the guy on the top left; his name is Ron Linton. You guys ever heard about him?

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GREENE: No love lost. Then again, Kalanick, the CEO, and Linton, the commissioner, have a face-to-face meeting planned - for Valentine's Day.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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