Not long ago, D.C.'s mayor promised to make the nation's capital "the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the nation."
D.C.'s Taxicab Commission may have another plan in mind. On Monday, it released new regulations that restrict the use of fuel-efficient vehicles like the Prius.
These rules affect "sedan services" -- hired cars that aren't hailed on the street. NBC Washington detailed the new (some say quite confusing) rules, which include a requirement that sedans have a passenger volume of at least 95 cubic feet -- which is a hair bigger than most Prius models. The 2012 Prius III, for example, which gets 51 miles per gallon in the city, has a passenger volume of 93.7 cubic feet.
The commission denies that its rules will have too great an effect on the use of fuel-efficient vehicles in D.C. -- from Monday's statement:
[A]lthough it would not be appropriate to add in the Prius or other basic, economy cars here, it is also patently untrue that no hybrids could be operated as sedans under the new rules. Thus, the definitions, as written, directly serve the need to conserve fuel and protect the environment, without compromising other important interests at stake in the definitions.
Citing environmental concerns, this view has its detractors. "Not appropriate to add in the Prius? The Commission argues that since they only ban the most well-known and most well-tested hybrid sedan on the road today that their standard is still pro-environment," writes Matt Browner Hamlin in the blog Greater Greater Washington. "That doesn't make any sense."
Hamlin got a partial list of the vehicles the commission has approved -- it includes the 102 cubic foot Bentley Flying Spur (11 miles per gallon in the city), the 102 cubit foot Jaguar XJ (15 miles per gallon in the city) and the 105 cubic foot Dodge Charger, which at this point has started looking downright green with its 19 miles per gallon in the city.
Of course, few think that Priuses themselves are the problem. Many observers see the regulations as targeted specifically at UberX, Uber's lower-cost on-demand car service that launched in early August, and uses hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, as well as other mid-range sedans.
Or as New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey put it on Twitter:
The D.C. Taxicab Commission has ruled your Prius cannot be an Uber taxi because... just because. http://t.co/4gBm6RfbQb
— Annie Lowrey (@AnnieLowrey) August 20, 2013
The luxury car service has indeed wrangled with regulators since first entering the D.C. market in Dec. 2011. Commission spokesperson Neville Waters denies, though, that these regulations are meant to impede Uber specifically.
Rather, he told The Huffington Post, the agency's concern in this case has to do with protecting taxis -- a number of which are Priuses, and which can be hailed on the street -- from having to compete with on-call cars of the same make, creating an "unfair disadvantage to the taxi." (An explanation which failed to impress Greater Greater Washington commenters, one of whom asked, "Why is it more important to the DCTC to enable rent seeking behavior on the part of taxi drivers than it is to provide the consumer with fair and flexible mobility options?")
As the Washington City Paper reported, the commission may still change its mind:
The commission just launched an Industry Panel—made up, it should be noted, of a several taxicab commissioners—that will assess the changing nature of the cab service market, and, in part, make a recommendation to the full cab commission on the new regulations by the end of the year. Which means there's a possibility the new regulations won't stay on the books for long. The panel's first meeting is in late September.
Meanwhile, in a blog post on the Uber website, the company said "we’re still figuring out how to operate within this regulatory environment, rest assured that we do not plan to take this lying down."
And neither does D.C. Councilmember Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who's been highly critical of the commission's new sedan requirements, calling them anti-competitive and predicting they will "discourage consumer choice."
Cheh, who is also a law professor at George Washington University Law School, told HuffPost that she's "very disappointed," but is now looking to legislative solutions which she hopes to introduce at or soon after the next council session, on Sept. 17.
She "hasn't touched base" with her colleagues on the D.C. Council yet, Cheh said, but "my instinct tells me I'll get support for this."
Flickr photo by izik, used under a Creative Commons license