Dallas' Unfair Fight to Crush Uber

UPDATED SEPTEMBER 3 2014:Yellow Cab President's Ideas for Regulating Uber and Lyft: Make Them Just Like Taxis

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The only thing George was sure of on a hot night in July was that he had absolutely no idea why a Dallas police cruiser was pulling him over. George, whom we agreed not to identify so he'd talk to us, is a driver for a local black-car service. On that night, he had activated a smartphone provided to him by a software company called Uber. With a few swipes of a touchscreen, a ride-seeking Dallasite with the Uber app on his own smartphone had electronically hailed George's Town Car. Once George accepted the Uber referral, the man had a picture of George, his license-plate number, his rating among other Uber users and his exact location, transmitted via smartphone. The rider did not have to worry about having enough cash to pay George, and George did not have to worry about getting stiffed. An Uber ride is cashless, and all users have credit cards on file that are billed automatically.

George had picked him up at a restaurant on Henderson Avenue. "The client was very engaging and showing me directions," George said. "He wasn't serious. I don't think he was a policeman, but you never know."

It was a fare like any other. But when he pulled up to a hotel just south of downtown, he noticed the police cruiser behind him for the first time. He wondered if he'd violated a traffic law. As his client got out of the car, the cruiser pulled around and came to a stop near the exit to the street. Its lights lit up when George approached. An officer stepped out of the vehicle and ordered him to pull over.

The officer asked George for all the usual documentation — license, city permit, and proof of the kind of insurance policy all black car-service drivers and cabbies must hold to operate in the city of Dallas. The officer verified his permits back at the cruiser while George waited, nonplussed and growing indignant. Finally, he asked George if he knew why he'd been pulled over. The officer told him he didn't see George hand his customer a receipt. What's more, he added, George was providing an unauthorized car service.

George pulled out his smartphone and tried to explain to the officer that Uber customers receive an electronic receipt via email. He explained that he did, in fact, possess all the necessary authorizations from the city. "I felt like I was doing something legal because I have the Dallas limo operations permit, a D/FW International Airport permit. I've got insurance. I've got registration. I've got everything he asked me for."

The officer, however, was unsatisfied, and he filled out two citations, both listed in municipal court as "Limo Violation." George refused to sign either. He says the officer called for backup and, for a time, as two other officers stood at the ready, George was certain he was going to jail.

After he argued with the officer for a while about the legality of his business, "he told me to have a good night, and pretty much left me right there," George said. "I think he felt like he wasn't doing something right and that's why I don't think he continued to arrest me. I think he felt sorry for me."

George would later learn that he was by no means the only one. Some 31 other Uber drivers were also cited by Dallas police in stings over the course of several months, conducted with the help of undercover vice officers posing as customers and with the assistance of private investigators hired by the lawyer for the biggest taxi company in North Texas. This went almost entirely unnoticed by the press and the riding public. But months later, when a proposed ordinance was slipped into the City Council's consent agenda that would outlaw Uber's entire business model without so much as a public debate, it wasn't long before everyone caught wind of it.

A popular furor erupted. City Council members' email inboxes and Twitter feeds were flooded with missives (hashtagged #DallasNeedsUber) from incensed, tech-savvy Dallasites who loved the consumer-centric counterpoint Uber provided to traditional cab service. Rather than waving at cabs as they pass, praying one will eventually stop, customers can use the Uber app to summon a sleek Town Car that would arrive within minutes and take users anywhere they wanted to go, requiring about as much effort as "liking" a post on Facebook.

Uber heralded a shift in the way we flag rides, which hasn't ever much changed in the history of cabs. Because taxi service is often a fairly random, one-off transaction, the industry has never felt the free-market pressures that steer consumers to the very best. Until now, that is. The industry is looking over its shoulder at a feisty tech start-up with hundreds of millions of dollars injected into it by Google. So, perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising that Dallas, one of 23 cities in which Uber operates, isn't the only town attempting to shut the service out with radical changes to its taxi and limo ordinances. Nor should it come as any great shock that these changes share largely the same shape, and almost certainly, as Uber claims, originate from the same place: the taxi industry, which is watching Uber take a big bite out of its market share.

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Brantley Hargrove

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