Ride or Die

All Grown Up: Uber Actually Sits Down With D.C. Regulators, Gets a Deal

Do we detect a shift to softer, gentler methods of persuasion?
(Photo: Wikimedia)

(Photo: Wikimedia)

After a series of tussles with regulators across the country, yesterday something went right for Uber. Washington, D.C.–a city where regulators have long been skeptical of the service–has passed a bill that essentially allows the service to continue operating legally. And just a couple days after the appearance of New York Times article about the company’s many regulatory challenges, too!

As CEO Travis Kalanick explained over at the Uber blog, the bill creates a special class of for-hire vehicles that “operate through digital dispatch and charge by time and distance.” This solves part of Uber’s problem, which is that it’s neither fish nor fowl as far as regulators are concerned. Said Mr. Kalanick:

Above all, it brings regulatory certainty to the vehicle-for-hire marketplace – making it very clear that Uber and its partners, the licensed/regulated sedan companies and drivers, can’t be regulated out of existence.

Given all the high-profile dustups Uber and regulators and allegations of consumer fraud from its competitors, it’s natural to wonder what Uber did different this time. Well, it turns out your grandma was right–honey nets you more flies than vinegar. According to the Washington Post:

Uber, after the months of sturm und drang, sat down at the table (or at least its ace lobbyist did) with council staff and made legislative sausage that tastes good enough that the bill is likely to pass without incident Tuesday and without paroxysms of Uber outrage.

Don’t assume victory has turned CEO Travis Kalanick into a cuddly wuddly teddy bear, however. On a teleconference to explain the move yesterday, he called the taxi industry a “well organized, well-oiled machine,” and compared their lobbying efforts to the movie Thank You for Smoking. “It’s on that level,” he said.

Uber, in Mr. Kalanick’s telling, is but a humble tech company, unused to Tammany-style wheelings and dealings: “We’re not really set up to make that kind of lobbying effort. We’re just not pros at that kind of stuff.” Sure, they’ve hired lobbyists, but in some towns, Mr. Kalanick added, you need a lobbyist to get so much as a meeting. He also insisted that much of the persuasion is still in the hands of local general managers.

It’s too soon to tell what the victory means for Uber’s strategy here in New York City, where the taxi business is a world unto itself and the company’s attempt to launch in yellow cabs couldn’t quite get off the ground. (We’ve reached out for comment and will update if we hear back.)

But Mr. Kalanick did offer a little wink wink, nudge nudge to other cities giving his company trouble: “I think the really powerful part about this is that it shows that D.C. is basically leading the charge in embracing this kind of innovation and setting the standard for how other cities should be looking at this kind of innovation,” he said.

You don’t want to be less innovative than Washington, D.C., now do you?

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com