Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

10.02.12

No One's Complaining About Uber--Except the Taxi Commission

A FOIA request undercuts the Taxi Commission's argument for tighter regulation of DC's new car service

Last week, I wrote about the DC Taxi Commission's ongoing battle with Uber, the iPhone-based black car service.  I noted in passing that the DC Taxi Commission's claims that there have been complaints about Uber's failure to offer a printed receipt.  I was skeptical about how prevalent these complaints were . . . but apparently, not skeptical enough.  Nathaniel Heller filed a FOIA request to find out how many complaints the commission had received about Uber, and the answer he got was . . . er . . . none:  

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.

I think at this point, it's quite clear that the logic behind greater regulation of Uber has nothing to do with consumer problems.  Rather, it's the problems that taxi drivers have with Uber, and the threat it represents to the city council's control over the car-for-hire business.