There’s nothing quite like the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. My wife and I spent the holiday weekend in the capital, thrilling to fireworks over the monuments with new friends and watching our former neighbor perform in a musical at the Kennedy Center. Although the aerial pyrotechnics marked another year of American independence, it was the ride with Uber that got me thinking about freedom and choice.
While 20th century laws and regulations have put a Pennsylvania roadblock in front of Lyft and Uber, the ride-share services are a 21st-century hit in Washington.
Friday’s picnic before the fireworks was come-as-you-are, but Saturday’s show at the Kennedy Center was a dressier affair. Although the B&B where we stayed was less than two miles from the center and therefore walkable, who wants to show up at the theater in a pool of sweat? I decided Saturday morning that we’d take a cab.
Our innkeeper said, “Don’t call a taxi. Try Uber. Do you have the app?”
I didn’t. What I did have was memory of the news stories back home about the obstacles that Lyft and Uber have been facing while trying to launch in Pennsylvania.
The innkeeper went on and on about the popularity of Uber in a city where taxis can be expensive, even though D.C. is served by several different companies and, one would think, competition. Even one of her staff members extolled the virtues of Uber.
So that afternoon I downloaded the free Uber app on my smartphone. It asks you to register name, address, email address and credit card number for billing the cost of your rides. No cash or credit cards are accepted in the car. The app will even let customers post their photo so drivers can recognize you on pickup.
In Washington, Uber offers several ways to get around, depending on a passenger’s needs. There is UberX, the lowest-cost ride; UberXL, larger vehicles for larger groups; UberBLACK, luxury cars (Lincoln Town Car, Chrysler 300, etc.); UberSUV, lots of seats and lots of cargo room; and UberTAXI, which lets you use the convenience of your Uber app and credit account to call a traditional cab.
When it was time to head to the show, I opened the app and chose UberX, the cheapest option. I’d rather spend my dollars on a fine meal than a fine ride. The app asked if it could use my current location as the pickup point, and I approved. My phone screen then showed a street map of our neighborhood in D.C. Several cartoonish-looking cars were creeping along the street grid; it looked as if I had just opened a video game. A message tab said three minutes until pickup.
I pressed the tab to summon a driver and got a text message from Uber asking me to confirm. I did, then I received another text: “Your Uber is on the way. Sandy (4.8 stars) will pick you up in 3 minutes.” Wow — our driver comes highly rated, I told my wife. There was a photo of a man next to the words Toyota Camry.
On my phone, I could see Sandy’s “car” moving slowly and haltingly on the map. Then it stopped in the middle of a block on a street parallel to ours. My phone vibrated; it was Sandy calling to confirm the address. In a minute or so, I got my final text: “Tom, your Uber is arriving now.” Within seconds, a shiny black Toyota Camry pulled up at the curb.
Inside was the same Sandy from the photo. He was smiling and talkative; his car’s interior looked and smelled clean. We told him we were headed to the Kennedy Center.
I asked him about how Uber and Lyft were affecting Washington’s taxi cabs. Sandy said the competition was causing cabbies to clean up their vehicles and be more friendly to their customers. But they’re not going quietly; on June 25 a caravan of angry taxi drivers staged a protest in the middle of the business day, creating gridlock throughout the city.
Although the ride-share upstarts are able to serve the District of Columbia, Virginia, which is home to the Reagan National and Dulles International airports, has not approved the new companies. That means a ride-share car can pick up passengers in D.C. and deliver them to one of the airports, but the same car is prohibited from taking passengers from the airports to Washington or anywhere else. Ridiculous.
Our Uber ride to the Kennedy Center began at 6:41 p.m. and ended at 6:50 p.m., a total of 9 minutes and 1.39 miles. The fare was $8.69, minus $2.17 due to a promotion, for a total of $6.52 including tip. Minutes after we left Sandy and his Camry, all of these numbers, plus a map of our route, popped up in my phone as an emailed receipt.
After the show, we decided to compare Uber’s service to a standard cab. Fortunately, the Kennedy Center has an active taxi stand out front that receives a constant flow of cabs both before and after events. At the end of the night, no one needs to call for a pickup; you just stand in line and wait your turn for the next car.
When we got into the cab, I asked the driver to drop us off not at the B&B, but at a restaurant about three blocks away. I didn’t take note of the vehicle’s make, but it was clean and the ride was stiff, like a lot of cabs. Our driver had little to say. Although the cab ride back was only slightly longer than the Uber ride out, the fare was much higher — $10.25 plus tip.
The legal fights in various states over ride-share companies are the latest convulsions over innovation and convenience brought on by the Internet. For a weekend visitor to Washington the issue begs a simple question: In a country that celebrates choice and competition, why can’t Pennsylvanians have the same transportation options as their friends in D.C.?
Next time I’ll take Uber both ways. Let freedom ring.
Tom Waseleski is editorial page editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1422).