Most Georgetown students, especially when they have to be somewhere in a pinch, have experienced the satisfaction that comes with the ease of calling an Uber taxi and being dropped off right in front of their desired destination. But while we may be big fans of e-hauling vehicle services that do our bidding at the tap of a button, a number of D.C. taxi organizations are starting to become very angry, and the D.C. Council has been forced to respond.
Last Wednesday, taxi operators joined together to protest the D.C. Council’s decision to allow ride-sharing app vehicle services, such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, to operate within the city. In a large demonstration that blocked the city’s traffic downtown for about two hours, taxi cab drivers honked their horns in unison and caused a commotion that angered many people, especially those working in nearby offices. It’s also worth noting that there was a similar protest only a few months ago in June, showing that these drivers aren’t about to give up on getting their message across.
These city taxi drivers are speaking out against e-sharing app cab services because they have been able to operate without the same regulations and rules that normal taxi drivers are forced to deal with. As a result, they are granted a “competitive advantage” that is preventing fairness in the market. The Washington, D.C. Taxi Operators Association along with Teamsters Local 922 Union, in particular, have called upon the D.C. Council to pass just legislation that would even the playing field.
In fact, Councilmember Mary Cheh of Ward 3 has proposed legislation that aims to place more regulations on app-sharing taxi services. Under her bill, Uber and the like would have to provide primary insurance coverage for accidents, conduct criminal background checks, submit one percent of receipts from rides beginning in the city to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, and agree not to accept street hails.
Even with all these rules, however, the DC Taxicab Commission still feels that the competitive marketplace would not be leveled. The commission has proposed a “creative” solution: require all 7,000 or more taxicabs in the district to adopt a “One Taxi One City” e-hailing application, along with a benefits program for all public vehicle operators. Riders would be able to decide whether to pay with cash or credit card, or even credit card on file, through the application.
While the commission believes it has developed a unique solution to the make the game fair, it seems more like they have developed a replica of the very app-sharing services taxicab drivers are protesting. Some may be able to argue that taxicab drivers are taking a hit thanks to apps like Uber, but the reality is that city drivers have much more sway in Congress than any of these services could possibly enjoy.
For instance, for every $3,500 the taxi industry has donated to legislators and lobbying efforts, companies like Uber have granted only a dollar, according to a study from the Sunlight Foundation—talk about leveling the playing field. E-hailing vehicle services face a great deal more opposition than taxi drivers do, including when the D.C. Council briefly banned UberX after cab drivers spoke out against the service a couple years ago.
The real issue here seems to be a matter of innovation versus regulation, two institutions that hardly ever work together. Unfortunately for taxicab drivers, under the authority of the city, there isn’t much wiggle room for getting past services like Uber that have become ubiquitous for young adults in major cities.
At the same time, however, there’s also the reality of competition. At the end of the day, if Uber and all other app-sharing services are required to follow the rules outlined in Cheh’s legislation among other regulations that are sure to follow, there’s no reason for taxi operators to protest the company.
What taxicab drivers ought to be doing, on the other hand, is improving their response rate. Just a day before the protest, D.C. Taxi inspectors announced the results of a 30-day undercover operation, and they weren’t pretty. The District’s numbers show that of the 308 cabbies tested, 27 percent showed a failure rate of picking up passengers for a variety of reasons, most notably racial bias. The taxi industry has more to gain if operators spend less time blocking traffic and more time picking up passengers who want their service.