Category Archives: regulation

NIMBYs concerned tame, corporate, family restaurant will disrupt busy commercial district’s main thoroughfare

“Older District residents feel ignored by businesses aimed at the young and the hip,” says the Washington Post. That’s the headline from an article that, oddly, revolves around a regulatory battle between senior citizens and the newest addition to Columbia Heights’ bustling 14th Street: TGI Fridays. The article claims that this is a struggle between older, long-time residents who just want to spend their golden years in peace, and the large cohort of elder-disrespecting, younger people who migrated to the District over the last decade.

I think it’s really an age-old story of changing neighborhoods, changing preferences, and standard NIMBYism.

Hip youngsters

The Post narrative is implausible because TGI Fridays may be the least hip restaurant that could possibly be added to Columbia Heights, a distinction made even easier because there’s already a Ruby Tuesday directly across the street. TGI Fridays is so unhip that food bloggers take ironic visits to the “casual dining restaurant and bar” just to make fun of their offerings, and its very existence is a running gag at the Onion

Were it it not located within the same building as the apartments housing the senior citizens who protest against it at ANC meetings, I suspect they would be looking forward to having shrimp poppers, pizza shooters, and extreme fajitas with their friends. It’s just the type of well-lit restaurant for a conversation if you find most of the neighborhood’s establishments to be “frustratingly dim and… deafeningly loud.”

The ground floor in building that will soon host TGI Fridays has been largely vacant for the past several years. That means seniors enjoyed all the benefits of living on the commercial district’s main thoroughfare without any of the trade-offs that usually come with a mixed-use building, so I can understand their perspective. But they should also understand that TGI Fridays is about as good of a tenant as they could have hoped for. The Post article indicates that the restaurant will install sound-proofing to limit effects on the seniors, rather than limiting where and when the restaurant can do business.

This seems like the most sensible outcome, but the sword cuts both ways.

TGI Fridays could also be bad news for the young people the Post is fretting about. It’s exactly the type of bland, suburban restaurant they moved to Columbia Heights to avoid. After a few waves of hip people move to an up-and-coming neighborhood, high-income professionals and families may follow. With the last wave of new residents also comes higher rent and uncool neighbors. Sometime soon, young people may be forced to entirely abandon the neighborhood for hipper pastures in Brookland, Bloomingdale, and H Street NE, only to start the process again.

The same economic forces and rules that give birth to neighborhoods popular with young people may ultimately cause their demise, at least for the hip crowd.

For the same reason we shouldn’t allow young people to ban families and chain restaurants to preserve their hip enclaves, we shouldn’t let senior citizens control regulatory matters because they don’t want their commercial building to be used as designed.

D.C. Taxicab Commission should reverse course and re-legalize UberX

Uber recently launched their new uberX service in Washington, D.C. and immediately facedopposition from the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission. UberX is similar to Uber’s black sedan product, except it matches users with a hybrid car at a lower price point. Uber regularly faces opposition from regulators when entering new markets, but Uber’s original business model was formally legalized by the District Council earlier this year.

Ron Linton, chairman of the commission, claimed that hybrid vehicles can’t be classified as sedans under D.C. law, possibly making uberX illegal, but at the time, the D.C. code contained no such distinction.

Until today, that is. The commission took matters into their own hands and effectively banned uberX from D.C.  It seems like yet another example of regulators proposing new rules in search of a problem that might not actually exist.

Given Uber’s good track record, why did the commission go after uberX? ”It would be allowing a taxi-[like] vehicle essentially to run unregulated against… a taxi that is regulated. That simply doesn’t make sense to me,” said Linton.

It might not make sense to him, but let’s see how Uber’s internal regulations stack up with those provided by the Taxicab Commission.

The regulatory model offered by the commission is pretty standard and has five main features:

  1. Licensing drivers allows the commission to run background checks on people who want to drive cabs. The physical license, mandated to be displayed at all times, gives consumers a way to report a specific driver for misconduct.
  2. Meters let passengers know how far the taxi has traveled, and how much they are expected to pay.
  3. Basic standards on vehicle quality and business practice (including rules like not denying rides based on destination or race) let passengers know what to expect, and are supposed to deliver high quality service.
  4. Drivers are required to keep an accurate log of all rides, and issue customers receipts, which can be used in later disputes.
  5. The commission has roving inspectors, though the are off duty after midnight.

In a world without cell phones, GPS, or computers and only a small number of cab drivers, this might be the best possible regulatory model. In a city with thousands of taxis, these regulations have failed to protect consumers.

Drivers routinely drive without displaying their license, leaving passengers without the necessary information to pursue a complaint. It’s very difficult for a passenger to tell if a meter is functioning correctly, and those who aren’t versed in taxi regulations can’t tell if the driver entered the correct amount of extra charges unless he is also displaying the required information. Drivers almost never issue actual receipts, and instead give passengers blank forms. All of these problems were spotted in a recent investigation by WUSA9.

In two separate investigations, WUSA9 confirmed what everyone knows: cabbies will often refuse to pick up black or disabled customers. According to Clinton Yates, “Uber increases the quality of  life for those of us who are regularly dissed by taxi drivers.” For all their efforts, the D.C. Taxicab Commission has been unable to deliver what their regulations promise.

Uber takes a different approach to regulation with both their standard black sedan and uberX services.

  1. The meter, log and payment system is replaced by smart phones. The phones connect the driver and passenger, track the path of the car and send payment.
  2. Uber later emails the customer a detailed receipt that includes a map of the car’s path and an explanation of charges.
  3. Passengers rate drivers, and drivers rate passengers. People who are dishonest or treat others poorly are removed from the service. Whether or not a license is displayed, the passenger knows exactly with whom he or she is dealing.
  4. If a driver takes a bad route to increase the fare, Uber will offer refunds to customers.
  5. Uber drivers and their vehicles are often licensed outside of the district, but Uber conducts their own background check and training process.

Uber doesn’t own cars or employ drivers. Rather, they work with independent drivers or companies that own fleets of vehicles. Unlike the Taxicab Commission, they have a strong financial incentive to make sure passengers have a positive experience. If Uber set standards as low as the commission does, it would go out of business. If the commission set standards as high as Uber does, it might face political pressure from elected officials, for whom taxi drivers are an important constituency.

The commission itself hasn’t licensed sedan drivers or vehicles in several years, effectively outsourcing sedan regulation to other jurisdictions. The commission says it is going to start licensing sedans and drivers again, which would mean that they will no longer be able to be licensed out of state and operate within the District. Combined with the recently passed regulations on sedan size, it seems that the commission is making changes solely to stop uberX from competing with cabs.

In a few short years, Uber has done a much better job of ensuring that D.C. residents have access to pleasant for-hire rides at a fair price than the D.C. Taxicab Commission could possibly hope for. If district regulation of for-hire vehicles is designed to protect consumers, then UberX should clearly be allowed to operate.