Uber cruises into town

By Derrick Perkins (File Photo)

Taxicab company officials downplayed Uber’s arrival in Alexandria as a newcomer in an already crowded and competitive transit market, but word on the street is just the opposite.

“[Uber] completely sacked, sacked our business,” said Samuel Tsegaye last week from inside his White Top cab at a taxi stand in front of Hotel Monaco on King Street.

Business is slow in August, he said, but for the past several weeks, drivers have seen a steep drop-off in customers. Tsegaye estimates spending upward of an hour-and-a-half waiting at the taxi stand between fares in recent weeks.

“It’s changed a lot, because most of the calls [that were] coming here, those calls are going to Uber,” Tsegaye said.

While the popular Internet-based company — which allows users to summon and pay for a ride with their smartphones — is not exactly new to Alexandria, company officials announced they had extended “reliable service” to the Port City and surrounding area last month.

“We’re really committed to improving [service] for our users; we’re always expanding and improving. This latest launch is another testament to that,” said Joel Carron, a company spokesman. “We know we have a lot of users that are not necessarily based in the District, and for those in the District, they’ll have the opportunity to go out to Alexandria.”

Uber’s sudden rise, though, has put it in the sights of government regulators. In nearby Washington, the company has tussled with District officials more than once in the past year. The contention is not just limited to D.C.; regulators and critics nationwide have sought to ban or limit Uber’s expansion into their markets.

But in Alexandria the company likely will see little — if any — local government opposition. Because Uber is considered a limousine service, all it needs for operations is a state license, said city attorney Chris Spera.

“The way that we interpret the state law, they have to go get a state limo license, but we don’t count them as taxis,” Spera said, noting that Uber won’t have access to cabstands and is barred from bidding on local government contracts, like shuttling seniors or school children.

“As long as they have their appropriate licensing, we don’t really regulate them.”

And that’s the real problem, said Tsegaye. Uber acts like a taxicab company but does so without city oversight. Why should he and his fellow drivers pay dispatch fees, paint their cars in distinct colors, undergo regular city inspections and put up with Alexandria’s byzantine cab guidelines — which, among other regulations, limit drivers from switching companies — when Uber gets a free pass, he argued.

And more than one cabbie claims to have seen Uber drivers parking across the street from their stands, waiting for a customer that they believe would otherwise have taken a taxi.

For its part, Uber does not consider itself a transportation service.

“A lot of people think about us as a transportation company, but in reality, we’re actually a tech company,” Carron said. “We don’t employ drivers, and we don’t own a single car. We own the technology to connect people with cars.”

The business model is surprisingly similar to the way taxicab companies already function in Alexandria. Like Uber, they partner with local drivers, who own the cabs and pay for much of their upkeep, and provide a dispatch service.

Spera admits that the difference between Uber and a traditional cab company is beginning to blur.

“I’m not going to tell you there aren’t increasing similarities, but from a legal aspect, the way we look at [Uber], it is a limo company,” he said. “It’s a privately arranged trip with a fee schedule they arrange independently with their customers — not with us.”

From an enforcement angle, city regulators only can step in if they catch Uber drivers using cabstands, Spera said.

While Spera, who has long handled transit issues for City Hall, sees the tech company moving the traditional concept of a limo service several steps in the direction of a cab company, Alexandria’s taxi heavyweights are embracing Uber’s technology.

“Similar to Uber, we offer the convenience of ordering, reserving and paying for trips through the world’s No. 1 taxi app, Taxi Magic,” wrote Alexandria Yellow Cab owner Spencer Kimball in an email. “Unlike Uber and a number of other unregulated transportation options, our rates do not spike to reflect an insufficient number of vehicles, the time of day, or the pickup and drop-off locations. We will continue to be the most convenient and cost-effective transportation option in Alexandria.”

While Daniel Kim of Union Cab said Uber has not affected his company’s operations, it is poised to become the center of a conversation within the industry.

The best way to keep Uber at bay, Kimball said, is providing customers with dependable service at a reasonable price. Yellow Cab will roll out changes and upgrades designed to improve customer service in the coming weeks, he said.

“We understand that we are competing for customers from a myriad of transportation providers, including DASH, Capital Bikeshare, Zipcar, Metro, limo companies and even a free trolley in Old Town,” he said. “While Uber is another option, we plan to continue to earn our customers’ business with every trip by providing the most convenient and cost-effective transportation option in Alexandria.”

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