Uber’s founders launched their car-summoning service to solve a simple problem: They couldn’t get cabs on weekend nights in San Francisco. The result was a sleek, user-friendly system that has won the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of customers in cities all over the world.
Now, those who benefited from the old system are fighting back.
Cabbies shut down central London on Wednesday, protesting that only they, with their esoteric professional codes, should be able to use meters when driving people around the city for money. Similar protests occurred in Paris and Madrid. While the London taxi drivers were striking, large numbers of Londoners were rendering their verdict by signing up for Uber for the first time.
The fight is roiling communities across the United States, too. Regulators are often complicit in protecting a system that is congenial to taxi companies but inconvenient for customers; rules in cities such as Austin, Tampa, Miami and Orlando don’t allow for Uber. Recently, Virginia state officials sent cease-and-desist letters to Uber and Lyft, a similar service. Uber is fighting back, asking its users to complain to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and other officials. The District of Columbia has so far avoided an innovation-stifling regulatory crackdown, but the issue is still a live one in the city.
There’s a role for regulation to protect riders from unsafe or unscrupulous drivers. We do not believe that Uber should be able to operate without oversight. But professional licensing requirements too often go beyond reasonable consumer protections and become pernicious limits on competition. Ensuring that drivers have enough insurance to cover accident costs would be a good idea. Requiring excessive levels of coverage or ridiculous training programs would not. Neither would banning market-responsive features such as “surge pricing” or part-time, freelance drivers.
Over time, Uber and Uber-like applications can and will integrate more with the incumbent cab industry. In Washington, users already can summon licensed cabs on the Uber platform. A similar program just launched in London. By more efficiently connecting riders with cars and by offering easy ways to pay, this convergence has benefited consumers and may help cabbies, too. But regulation must not only allow easier ways to take advantage of existing, overregulated services but also allow for wide consumer choice.
Uber has been in talks with Virginia officials over what regulations make sense. We hope the results of these discussions will reflect the needs of consumers, not the preferences of cabbies. Perhaps the state could even provide an example for other cities, states and countries engulfed in the Uber wars.
We should disclose here that Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos is an investor in Uber. But we have been defending the car service — and, more broadly, the innovation and competition that have been boons to riders — since long before he bought this newspaper last year. We will continue to argue that the right outcome is for the cab industry to be pushed to improve, not coddled in its pre-Internet cocoon.