Ride-Hailing Apps Are Calling Cities on Their Bluffs

Transportation network companies have nothing to lose by challenging official threats against their drivers.

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Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

On Thursday, in what at first glance appears to be an escalation in the ongoing national fuss over hailing apps, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles issued cease-and-desist letters to Uber and Lyft. Both services promptly pledged to continue providing services in Old Dominion despite the order. 

Just as they promised, I had no trouble hailing a car from outside the Rosslyn Metro Station, right in the heart of Northern Virginia—just across the Key Bridge from Washington, D.C., where ride-sharing is under no such penalty. There were plenty of familiar black cars on Uber available for service. The only real difference between today and any other day was the #VAneedsUber campaign on Twitter. 

"Arlington County police say they will be out in full force Friday, on the lookout for the car-sharing companies," reports WJLA. While that nugget may have caught Arlingtonians by surprise today, it's business as usual for Uber and Lyft. Back in late March, for example, the San Antonio Police Department announced that it would arrest Lyft drivers found operating in the city. The very same day, that position was undercut by San Antonio's mayor.

Meanwhile, Uber and Lift have begun providing services in Austin and Miami, despite official opposition in those cities. The Austin Chronicle documented at length how the city of Austin put the kibosh on Heyride back in November 2012, but that hardly mattered, because Heyride was quickly gobbled up by SideCar, which launched in February 2013 in Philadelphia, Austin , and Los Angeles—despite the fact that SideCar had been issued a C&D by the California Public Utilities Commission. Official city opposition is practically a requirement for a successful hailing app.

The Cato Institute's Matthew Feeney channels the requisite outrage over these state efforts, which are frequently interpreted as a protection for incumbent paleo services, specifically taxi drivers. "Rather than hinder the growth of innovative livery companies that are taking advantage of new technology, lawmakers in Virginia and elsewhere across the country should consider repealing current taxi regulations that restrict innovation, strengthen established market players, and stifle competition," Feeney writes.

Uber Cease and Desist

One thing none of these standoffs has produced is a high-profile arrest. One San Antonio Lyft driver told a reporter that he had been ticketed and that the fine didn't change his opinion about driving for Lyft whatsoever. San Antonio officials say they have cited at least 10 Uber and Lyft drivers, and the city is now threatening to impound Uber and Lyft cars. A handful of fines not exceeding $500 a pop might well be the cost of doing business for ride-sharing services while cities settle on sensible regulations. 

San Francisco International Airport claims that its officials have made "citizens' arrests" of Uber and Lyft drivers—a more serious matter (sort of)—but Uber disputes the claim that any of its UberX drivers have been arrested. The airport has emerged as a tricky spot for hailing-app service drivers in Houston and Chicago, too.

Given the outpouring of tweets in support of #VAneedsUber, it's hard to imagine a ride-sharing driver being arrested anywhere in the country without a Twitter storm following it. The hailing-app services understand that. Officials such as Mayor Castro probably do as well. As more and more cities adopt legal postures prohibiting hailing apps, they appear to be less and less successful.

It's baked into the cake.

“We will enforce it, but it will not be a primary focus of our operations," Arlington County Police Department spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck told the Northern Virginia blog ARLnow.com. “We are going to take a soft approach, but we will not turn a blind eye.”

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.