Cities across the country have been using the same taxi system for years; it’s the same system with the same rules and the same everything since 1985. The regulations and rules – those that govern income, availability, and accessibility of taxis cabs – have remained largely insulated and untouched. Saying that this system was archaic would be putting it mildly. Most taxis in DC didn’t even accept credit cards until 2013! It’s only recently that some more major reforms have begun, including deregulation efforts that set taxi prices closer to free market forces (i.e. surge pricing during peak hours).
Then came Uber and Lyft, which completely disrupted the taxi system and made rideshare apps the norm. Gone suddenly were the days of physically having to hail a cab. The ease and accessibility of mobile rideshare options have, since their introduction into the market, shifted the paradigm. As key contributors to the “collaborative consumption” economy that has pervaded this decade, Uber and Lyft make it so that your own vehicle is capital for sharing. In the past, you would need to own a taxi, apply for a special medallion, work with a dispatcher, etc. Now rideshare services provide virtually anyone (who owns a car) with the ability to earn some extra income.
With this newly discovered driver freedom also came legal uncertainty. For the most part, Uber and Lyft drivers were operating without definitive backing from the law up until 2012. The “Public Vehicle-for-hire Innovation Amendment Act” enacted in 2014 allowed for the beginnings of regulation and acceptance of digital dispatch rideshare companies in DC. Legality aside, there’s still a lot of work to be done in creating comprehensive regulation in this newly budding industry.
Basic Vehicle Requirements in DC
Although the system has increased accessibility, there are still baseline standards for rideshare drivers and their vehicles. With a few exceptions (i.e. vehicle age), the vehicle requirements are streamlined. Focusing on Uber and Lyft (excluding specialty vehicles such as UberX):
|Model Year 2007 or Newer||Model Year 2006 or Newer|
|4-door car or minivan||4-door car, 5-8 seats (including driver)|
|Good condition with no cosmetic damage|
|Pass vehicle inspection||Pass DMV check and background check|
|Driver’s License Required (>21 years old)||Driver’s License Required (>21 years old)|
|Current official (or temporary) registration||Current official (or temporary) registration|
|State/locally-accepted vehicle insurance||State/locally-accepted vehicle insurance|
|No commercial branding|
DC Legislative Regulations (according to the Public Vehicle-for-hire Innovation Act)
Disclaimer – this is not a comprehensive list of rules and regulations, but is an aggregate created for simplicity and is subject to change in the upcoming years.
- Privately owned vehicles may be used for public transportation, so long as the drivers are notified electronically or through an app
- Along the same lines, rideshare drivers may not pick up passengers that hail them from the street
- Rideshare drivers with companies such as Uber and Lyft may not solicit fares at taxi stands specified for DC taxi services
- If there is suspicion of illegal street hailing, the rideshare operator must provide law enforcement with access to their electronic trip records.
- Background checks and minimal levels of insurance are required for all drivers before they begin driving for the TNC (transportation network company)
- Companies must provide passengers with photographic access of the vehicle driver and the vehicle license plate before pickup
- Drivers must successfully pass a criminal background check, sex offender database check, and driver history check
- App-based services must provide primary insurance coverage of minimum $50,000 per person per accident, with up to $100,000 available to all and $25,000 available for property damage
- A private rideshare vehicle operator may affiliate with more than one rideshare service (unless specified by the company)
Common Criticisms of the Rideshare Legislation
Many taxi drivers in DC are upset about the legislation. A large percentage of drivers that were interviewed claim that the popularity of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar with consumers legitimized the services in a way that was not only above the law, but was also demeaning to veteran DC taxi drivers. They assert that the hurdles they had to go through when first applying to become taxi drivers were significantly more restrictive than those created for the current TNC drivers. Uber and Lyft drivers still do not require the same stringent screening that DC taxis have to go through. Rideshare drivers also do not face the same costs when it comes to licensing or insurance.
Then there’s the question of fair competition in the ride hailing market. Free-market rideshare apps were illegal at some point, and yet still operated and thrived. Uber and Lyft rates go up with demand-based surge pricing, whereas taxi services had to work with a fixed, regulated rate. Taxi companies have succeeded in reforms which create similar pricing options for digital dispatch taxi services. It’s still a long way to go before DC taxis can be competitive with rideshare apps.