The D.C. Taxicab Commission has a message for drivers using the new ridesharing mobile app SideCar: they are breaking the law.
The commission that regulates all vehicle-for-hire services in the District of Columbia once again finds itself at odds with a tech start-up.
After battling the sedan service Uber in 2012 before creating a sedan class license to allow the company to operate legally in the District, the Taxicab Commission notified SideCar management that its drivers may not pick up passengers in D.C. without the proper licenses and vehicle tags.
"Individuals who join this rideshare operation must be licensed taxicab or limousine drivers in the District of Columbia and must have vehicles that have L tags," said Commission Chairman Ron Linton.
SideCar does not send a regular taxi or limo after you order a ride on your smartphone. The drivers are ordinary folks using their own private vehicles to make a few extra bucks by giving passengers rides for a "suggested donation," paid via credit card registered in a passenger's SideCar account. While that may not be traditional ridesharing, it is not exactly taxicab service either, because SideCar drivers lack meters in their cars.
"We don't have any beef with SideCar as a company. Our responsibility is for drivers and vehicles and for public safety and consumer protection," Linton said. "The drivers of these vehicles are offering a public vehicle-for-hire. They expect to be paid for their services. They must be licensed under current law."
Linton said not a single SideCar driver has received a license from his office, so they are subject to being ticketed and having their vehicles impounded. Linton was not sure how many drivers have signed up for SideCar.
The tech start-up defended its business model in a statement to WAMU 88.5.
"SideCar is a technology platform that enables peer-to-peer ridesharing. Drivers come to SideCar by choice as we are not a taxi service. They choose where they want to go, when they want to drive and for how long. Under rideshare laws, people are allowed to do this," said company spokeswoman Claire Raymond. "As of now, ridesharing is a protected activity."
Raymond did not respond to questions about how many SideCar drivers are operating in D.C. or whether they have sought to acquire licenses from the Taxicab Commission.
In an interview with WAMU 88.5, SideCar driver Graham, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said he resents the assertion that he is breaking the law.
"This stems from the fact that the D.C. cab system is really terrible, and I think that companies likes Uber and SideCar have found niche entrances because of the lack of trust and faith in the D.C. cab system," said Graham, who said he had to submit to the company his driver's license and vehicle registration and undergo a background check, interview, and in-person orientation before SideCar approved his driver application.
"It bothers me that they say it is illegal. I just think they don't understand," he said.
Graham, a government contractor by day, said he has made a few hundred dollars over the past six weeks providing rides on nights and weekends.
The D.C. Taxicab Commission and SideCar drivers may not be openly warring yet, but Graham fails to see how SideCar would present a threat to the District's taxicab industry.
"When I drive around, I see people getting into cabs every day, and those people are not going to ever take SideCar," he said. "It's a self-selecting population of people who take SideCar and are willing to get in someone's car and talk to them, right?"
A SideCar "donation" amounts to about 80 percent of a D.C. taxicab fare based on distance traveled, Graham said. SideCar receives 20 percent of a driver's receipts.
"They call it a donation, we call it a payment," Linton said. "It's high on our radar because it is illegal."