Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe ride-sharing industry typified by Uber continues its blitz on Arlington’s consciousness, capturing the loyalty of some—though not all—generations.

The practical, policy and ideological issues were laid out Nov. 12 at the Committee of 100, at a time when the new techy “transportation network companies” are getting their first taste of regulation, and when the old-time taxi industry is being forced to adapt or die.

Ride sharing among strangers is not new, said George Mason University public affairs Professor Ed Zolnik. He displayed a World War II poster encouraging passengers to double up in jeeps, and noted that commuter “sluggers” at the Pentagon have flourished for years without regulation. Skeptical of claims that debates over Uber’s viability pit Republican free-marketers against Democratic rulemakers, Zolnik said it’s more that Uber users have a desire to demonstrate “social modernity.” But current understanding of the ride-sharing market is a “black hole,” so regulating is tricky.

Colin Tooze, Uber’s East Coast public policy official, brandished the nifty app that allows you to summon four levels of rides in 200 cities in 46 countries. Your smartphone flashes your probable price. “Uber doesn’t employ drivers, maintain a fleet or own cars,” he noted. “It’s all in the software. The app means riders needn’t carry cash or credit card. Nor need they tip, though they do get to rate the drivers (who get to rebut).

“Veterans are some of our best drivers,” Tooze added, and the independent contractors can work “four hours a day or four hours a week.” Some are even soccer moms earning money between practices. He denied Uber adds to pollution by crowding the streets.

“Taxi regulations were written decades ago before this technology,” Tooze said. Uber was only minimally conscious of regulations when it launched in 2009, thinking of itself as software more than a transport service, he said. But now it views the regulatory bill just passed by the D.C. government (requiring minimal driver background and vehicle checks plus a form of insurance) as a national model.

Red Top Cab Vice President Charlie King said his industry is hardly stuck in the past, having begun computerized dispatching decades ago (there’s a Red Top app). “We’re fine with competition, but we realized we need to control our brand,” he said. “The core of our philosophy is to meet customer needs and give choices.”

With taxis, you get a live call-center operator and amenities such as wheel-chair-accessible cabs and senior discounts up to 70 percent—not available on Uber. “We managed to achieve all this in a regulated environment in Arlington,” King said, calling it a “fallacy” that Uber and the like are technology companies, not transport providers.

“When you order a cab, you know the driver has been vetted by the county” and on FBI databases, not just online, he added. Taxi companies don’t surge prices in peak time or cut them at other times to put smaller competitors out of business. “And we have to be concerned about our drivers’ livelihoods and safety.”

The new D.C statute has “gaping holes,” King said, vowing that Virginia’s coming version will do better. Insurance should be required at all times, “not just when someone is in the backseat.”

Still, the new transportation network companies “are here to stay,” the Red Top man acknowledged. “That is one slick piece of technology.”

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Sometimes it pays to squawk. The documented majority in the Westover area who protested an Arlington Public Schools proposal to move the H-B Woodlawn program to the Reed School/Library have won. The plan was quietly tabled by the School Board at a Nov. 13 work session.

Still to be determined in December is which variation of a plan to accommodate a coming demographic explosion by moving H-B from the Stratford Building—needed to construct a much larger middle school—to the upper Rosslyn site of the vacant Wilson School. Reed, however, could be commandeered in the future for a new elementary school. A fight for another day.