Newcomer becomes a driving force in Washington
WASHINGTON: The taxi alternative that launched in Sydney last month, Uber, has won a big victory in Washington, where the council had moved to pass a law to force it out of business.
Instead, after an overwhelming online campaign driven by Uber passengers - and the company's founder, Travis Kalanick - a package of regulatory reforms has recognised its business model, apparently cementing the company into the US capital.
Mr Kalanick said the company had weathered legal or regulatory attacks by authorities with close ties to taxi providers in San Francisco, Chicago and most recently Washington and New York.
In New York on Thursday, regulations were changed to allow customers to hail taxis via companies such as Uber, dramatically expanding its potential network of customers and drivers.
Mr Kalanick said this was because taxi services were normally dominated by a small cartel of providers who had built close relationships with regulators over years of operation.
In Washington, the head of the Taxi Commission had complained Uber was illegally charging customers timed fares - a right restricted to heavily regulated taxi services. A sympathetic member of council proposed a law that would have forced the company to charge five times the going rate for taxis.
Uber, which keeps in contact with all of its customers electronically, launched a social media campaign that attracted 104 million online references.
The company even held public meetings for its customers. It was, the Atlantic magazine reported, ''the nation's first populist limo movement''. Whenever Mr Kalanick mentioned the name of the Taxi Commissioner, Ron Linton, one excited fan yelled from the audience, ''F--- that guy!''
Some of Uber's DC drivers and customers told Fairfax Media they supported the company's campaign. They said the city had been stuck with an unreliable taxi service running a sometimes poorly maintained fleet of vehicles. For those willing to pay a little extra, Uber had alleviated the problem.
After downloading an app to their smartphone, customers can order a new, clean black sedan with a couple of taps of their finger, then watch it approach on their onscreen map. Because they have already given the company their credit card details on signing up, their fare - calculated on time, distance and demand - is charged automatically.
Drivers are protected from robbery because they no longer carry cash and their customers cannot run off without paying because their fee is charged automatically.
The customer and the driver are asked to rate the fare at the end of the trip. One driver said questions were quickly asked of drivers if their reviews fell below 4.5 out of 5 stars.
The model has proved so popular that Uber has expanded from five cities at the end of 2011 to 21 today, and Mr Kalanick predicts he will operate in 80 by the end of next year.
He said the Sydney operation started with 50 drivers in November and he would not be surprised if another 25 were already on the road.
He said he was unaware of any concerns raised by the state government or Reg Kermode, the director of Sydney's largest taxi company, Combined Communications Network and executive chairman and chief executive of Cabcharge.
But he said if authorities moved to change regulations in any city in a way that would force Uber out, he would respond as he had in DC. Picking his words carefully he said: ''We just let [our customers] know what is going on. They do what they want with that information.''