Biglaw, Cars, Technology

Is Uber Against The Law?

If you don’t live on one of the coasts, you probably don’t know what Uber is.

If you do live on one of the coasts, but don’t know what Uber is, you are probably a poor who takes the subway everywhere and “walks” or something.

But if you do know what Uber is… it’s freaking awesome, isn’t it?

For the uninitiated, Uber is a smartphone app that allows you to call for a prepaid car to your immediate location. If this sounds like it’s not a big deal, then you’ve never tried to get a cab to get you the hell out of Brooklyn at 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday night.

I was first introduced to Uber by Mark Britton, the founder and CEO of Avvo. After meeting him for drinks, I was locked in the black-person hell of not being able to hail a cab and wondering if it was because of race, but trying not to look like I was wondering that in front of a white person. While I’m contemplating hurling an IED at the next on-duty cabbie who doesn’t stop, Britton calmly pulls out his phone and explains that with Uber, a livery cab will be sent to our location in minutes. We’ll be able to track our car with GPS and the whole thing is automatically paid for, including tip, through the phone.

Oh brave new world with such applications in it.

Now, Uber is trying to move from livery cars to yellow taxi cabs. It should be great, if not for all the pesky legal issues….

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission is considering some legal challenges to Uber’s application to yellow cabs. The New York Times has the story:

Taxi officials say that Uber’s service may not be legal since city rules do not allow for prearranged rides in yellow taxis. They also forbid cabbies from using electronic devices while driving and prohibit any unjustified refusal of fares. (Under Uber’s policy, once a driver accepts a ride through the app, no other passenger can be picked up.)…

An analysis conducted by the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents yellow-taxi operators, identified what it deemed to be 11 potential violations of taxi guidelines in Uber’s model. These included charging a tip automatically, not allowing for cash payments and turning away passengers while being on duty.

I’ll pause while my anti-regulation friends have a conniption over how “the government” is “frustrating innovation” by an American business.

Back with me? Okay, now some of these regulations are clearly important. I’m particularly sensitive to the ones that “require” cabbies not to turn away fares. Unless you look like me, you really have no idea what it’s like to stand out there on a dark and cold night, have a cabbie slow down like he’s about to stop for you, then suddenly speed up once he gets a look at you, only to stop a block away for a white guy. It happens. It’s happened to me. Not six weeks ago I was leaving karaoke with friends and I asked a white girl in the party to hail me a cab and she did and when I dived instead of her the cabbie said, “Aww… I fell for the white girl trick. You tricky. Hahahaha.” Like it was all a big f**king joke.

I don’t want to give cabbies another excuse to not pick up paying fares. I still want to live in a city where people with cash only can hail cabs, and sometimes, damnit, not everybody can afford the freaking tip. A Bronx City Councilman put it this way:

Councilman James Vacca, the chairman of the City Council’s transportation committee, said that the spread of taxi apps had the potential to create a “two-tiered taxi system” in the city: one for people “with fancy smartphones” who are asked to pay a premium, and one for everybody else.

The thing is, we already have a two-tiered transportation system: the people who can afford to take cabs, and the people who can’t. There’s already a separate system for people who can hop a taxi when they are coming back from getting drunk, and people who have to risk passing out on the subway and waking up in the Bronx with no wallet and a “Derek Jeter was here” sign stuck to their ass.

Uber is not really going to exacerbate the yawning gap between haves and have-nots that New Yorkers are already acclimated to.

Besides, it’s the wave of the future anyway. And if there is one thing New York City is good at, it’s getting with the future. New York has the best cab system in the world because we embrace new technologies. The last time I was in D.C., I had to make the cab stop at an ATM because he didn’t have a card swipe thingy. I felt like the meter should have been a time machine and the non-satellite radio should have been blaring Ace of Base.

New York City will never become that, and it will use any means necessary, legal or illegal, to stay über.

As a Taxi-Hailing App Comes to New York, Its Legality Is Questioned [New York Times]

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