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The Real Record of Complaints Against Uber in DC

A hobby horse of mine in recent months has been watching the debate here in Washington, DC about how and whether to regulate popular on-demand car service Uber. Although Uber costs much more than traditional taxis, it's been incredibly popular and poses a real threat to taxi services in many cities. The taxi lobby and its allies have often responded by attempting to introduce legislation that curbs the ability of Uber to compete for rides. Megan McArdle had a nice update over at the Daily Beast earlier this week with another somewhat flailing attempt by the DC taxi commission to halt Uber's march in the nation's capital.

Whether in DC or other cities, regulators and legislators have often invoked vague, unspecified service complaints against Uber as a rationale for regulating the company. McArdle quotes DC Taxi Commission head Ron Linton arguing that his office has received complaints from Uber users about not receiving paper receipts from drivers (the service instead sends you an email with a map trace of your ride and detailed cost calculation within minutes of stepping out of the sedan). 

Dubious of Linton's (and other's) claims that riders in DC were experiencing problems with Uber, I filed a Freedom of Information Request with the city government asking for a a brief listing of those complaints covering the period January 1 through July 31 2012. I specifically asked Linton's Taxi Commission for two things: 1) a list of complaints against Uber, with as many details as the Commission could provide with respect to the nature of those complaints, and; 2) a simple count of all other complaints filed by riders with the Commission against all other taxi services operating in the District. I wanted to know whether the rate of complaints against Uber was above, below, or on par with the average taxi service in Washington, DC.

Here's the reality of rider complaints filed against Uber in Washington, DC (quoting from the response to my FOIA request, which you can access here in full):

The D.C. Taxicab Commission has not received any public complaints against Uber Technologies nor against any other taxi and limousine services during the request timeframe. Please note that public complaints are mainly lodged against individual taxicab and/or limousine drivers, not against taxicab and/or limousine services. 

Hmm.  There are several potential implications stemming from this dearth of complaints.

  1. Taxi and sedan services operating in the district are flawless. So why the need for additional regulation if literally no one, in an entire six-month period, is complaining about the services to the taxi commission?
  2. Uber is no more prone to complaints than any other taxi or sedan service, again raising questions as to why greater regulation is necessary.
  3. Where are the actual complaints that Linton and other critics are allegedly hearing?  If Linton's own commission has no record of complaints, then it strikes me as reasonable to expect that Linton (or others, such as DC city council members that have also invoked such "complaints" in calling for greater regulation over Uber) provide documentation or other details about the alleged service complaints before tossing them around liberally as proof of the need for an Uber crackdown.
  4. Reporters and bloggers in other cities might find it interesting to file similar FOIA requests with their respective regulatory agencies (hint, hint).

Regardless of where you stand on the debate around whether consumers need greater protection from on-demand car services such as Uber, I suspect we would all agree that regulators and politicians should be basing their decisions on facts, not innuendo or hearsay.