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Posted at 06:58 PM ET, 08/06/2012

D.C. taxi czar Ron Linton talks about cab upgrades, Uber tussle and his future


Gray and Linton roll out the new “smart meter” system last month. (Executive Office of the Mayor)
The D.C. taxicab industry is in for major changes, and it’s Ron Linton’s job to make that change happen. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) named the transportation industry veteran to chair the D.C. Taxicab Commission a year ago, and since then he’s helped push a major taxi reform package through the D.C. Council — one that should soon put credit card readers and other improvements in every city cab.

But Linton has also borne the brunt of discontent from drivers upset about low fares, riders upset about a recent fare hike and fans of Uber, the upscale car service whose operations have come under the commission’s scrutiny.

Linton talked with me last Thursday about Uber, the coming reforms, and his future in taxi regulation. The interview has been condensed and edited for flow, clarity and to make my questions more concise and intelligent-sounding than they might have actually been.

Me: Are you the most unappreciated guy in Washington?

Linton: When we increased the fares back in April, shortly thereafter the mayor asked me if the drivers were happy. I said, “No, Mr. Mayor, they don’t think we raised it enough. And the passengers aren’t happy because they think we raised it too much.” You have to understand, nobody loves a regulator. That simply goes with the office.

If that’s the case, where exactly do you seek validation?

I’m getting in conversations a sense that there is an improvement in attitude. I spend quite a bit of time mixing with drivers, when I get gas I talk to them, and I’m getting a change in feeling even from the drivers. And I thought the poll results sort of vindicated the direction we’re going in. Next year, you take that poll again, I would hope that we would see a real change in the community’s perception of the industry.

Are you surprised that the poll showed residents are so broadly accepting of the trade-off of improvements for a 50-cent surcharge?

I was not surprised at that. In fact, I really anticipated that people would respond to the promise. Now we’ll have to deliver. If we don’t deliver, you’ll see that attitude change.

How soon before taxi riders will start seeing “smart meters,” with credit card readers and GPS devices, in D.C. cabs?

I’m targeting Aug. 15, but I don’t know, we’ve got a couple of protests. The lawyers are pretty sanguine that the protests will be resolved in our favor. The thing I’m concerned about is the timing. If the appeals board says you can’t do anything until we resolve this protest, then they would really wreck the whole program.

How long is it going to take to install the smart meters?

Ninety days. That’s what the vendor says. What my goal is, before the inaugural crowd begins to arrive in this city, I want every taxi to have these smart meters and new dome lights. So that when those people who are visiting here go home, they say, “Oh boy, have they changed the cab system in Washington! It’s really good now!”

How are the smart meters going to change the taxi industry as we know it? Uber CEO Travis Kalanick predicts it will mean fewer cabs on the street.

Street hailing is a dying element. I don’t think five years from now you’ll find very many people standing out on a street trying to hail a cab. The app process of electronic reservations will make it so easy to punch in where they are and have a cab respond to it. I don’t know yet how that’s going to impact our numbers. That will have an impact on the number of vehicles that are needed for street hails. We encourage the electronic reservation systems. And they’re all integrating into our smart meter system so we don’t have any problems.

If it’s all integrated, why not just have the Taxi Commission create an app?

Right now, it’s private enterprise. And I’m encouraging it. My position is, encourage it, because we don’t know who the best is. Drivers can affiliate with any and all of them. We don’t regulate them.

There’s been a lot of attention on how the reform bill mandates a single paint color for all city cabs . What are your thoughts on what the color should be?

Who knows? The mayor has his idea, people have their ideas. I’m trying to stay away from having a public idea because once I have an idea, I’m no longer independent. I’m saying, let’s have a process. Let’s have a focus group. Let’s do this so we have maximum public input on this. I would hope that maybe by early spring, late winter we’ll have an agreement on the color.

The mayor likes the same red-and-white scheme as the Circulator buses and Capital Bikeshare.

I tried to tell him it would result in a lot of calls to the Circulator system asking to send cabs.

If there’s one issue that’s given the industry the most heartburn, it’s getting more wheelchair accessible cabs on the street. They say they won’t be able to afford them or otherwise get financing.

We’ve been in lengthy and monthslong discussions with WMATA to enter into a contractual arrangement with qualifying cab companies to guarantee a specific number of MetroAccess rides over a course of a year. That becomes a collateral device that makes it easy for them to go and buy wheelchair accessible vehicles. If it works, in one year, we would add 75 wheelchair accessible vehicles. We’re trying to hammer out a plan that would wind up in two or three years with 300 wheelchair access vehicles in the fleet. We’re closed a lot of gaps; Metro CEO Richard Sarles and I have come to an agreement in principle on it. What we have proposed could save the District a couple of million dollars a year off its Metro subsidy.

Sounds like a win-win if you can get it done.

These things have nuances.

Nuances, by which you mean lawyers.

Well, lawyers and ways of doing things and contract requirements and turf. You know, the usual thing in life, nothing comes easy.

One problem you hear from the politicians all the time is the problem of getting cabs into underserved areas, into neighborhoods remote from downtown.

We’re working on a plan that I think is going to put an end to that. I hope to unveil that in the next few months, an approach. We’ve got a lot of studying to do on how exactly to handle it. ... We’re looking at how do we fill the gaps for people who want to go short distances in areas that are not served by cruising cabs.

I’ll tell you, one of Uber’s major appeals is not necessarily that you’re getting a nice car, it’s that you can order one reliably when you don’t live in a part of the city where you can hail a cab on the street.

People are looking at Uber like somebody found the Holy Grail. The fact is, Uber has been the fastest one to unveil the next step, an electronic reservation system. But we already have several firms that are in here doing electronic dispatch. Uber is not the only one. We’ve had three other firms that have come in to talk to us that are getting ready.

But Uber is certainly the company causing the majority of your headaches these days.

All this business about regulating Uber, we’ve never proposed to regulate Uber. We don’t regulate companies. We regulate drivers and we regulate cars, but we don’t regulate companies.

Most recently Uber balked at an attempt by the D.C. Council to set a floor on their prices. You’re now in the process writing regulations for “sedan” class vehicles. Do you think there should be a minimum fare?

Sketching out our regulations now, there would never be any necessity for us to set maximum or minimum rates. Whatever Uber wants to charge, up or down. The one thing that I’ll argue strenuously against is market pricing, where you get into a car understanding that you’re going to pay one thing and you get out and wind up paying another. I mean, who goes into a store, picks up something on sale, walks to the register and says, “Oh, we changed the price since you decided to get that.” But there’s nothing else. We’re only asking them to adhere to the rules that we use.

But you’ve had other issues beyond the pricing.

They inadequately vet their drivers. They don’t care about the reciprocity agreement we have between Virginia and Maryland on the requirements of where you pick up and drop off. And I think they’re under the impression that if a driver has a license from WMATC, that that overrides everything else, and it doesn’t. We’ve had reports that they’ve given assignments to people who live out of the whole area. Apparently there was somebody from Florida with a Florida vehicle picking up and dropping off riders in the District. If that’s all right with the city council, fine. But right now that’s not fine, and we have a responsibility to the rest of the industry to enforce what they live by.

What assurances do you want from Uber and their drivers?

We want to know that the drivers are licensed in the District, that the vehicles are licensed in the District, that they’re adhering to our rules, our regulations. But we also want to know that what passenger is paying is a legitimate time and distance charge. So what we’re proposing for the sedan class, what we’ll tell the council, is we want an under-the-dash meter. That’s the meter that issues the receipt to the passenger that tells them what the cost was. When a rider gets that e-mail 20 minutes later, if what he was told it cost is different from that, he’s got something to discuss with us. In that fashion, the consumer is protected.

What have you made of the recent wails of protest from Uber users?

They give a high-class service to a market that enjoys that luxury that they get. They don’t have to fool around with money or anything like that. It’s like having a private driver.

That’s their slogan, you know — “Everyone’s Private Driver.”

Those people are for the most part a couple of generations back behind me, and they had a different attitude about life. And they don’t look at a lot of things in depth and try to understand that we have a lot of people who are not in their position. And so they get these sound bites that get them all excited, and they love getting excited. ...

Uber is — admittedly, I believe — a predator company. They’re going to try to dominate the market. And if it eliminates standard cabs, so be it. But if it does, what do we do with the older, low-income people who are frail, who rely solely on taxicabs as we know it to get to their grocery, to get to their doctor? And because those people are in my generation, I worry about them.

It seems like their posture has not helped Uber work through this.

Other companies with Uber’s idea came in, met with us, talked with us. We explained our rules, how we operated. None of them had any problem with what we were talking about. They were slow in rolling out their program. It seemed to us that Uber was simply saying, you don’t have any control over anything we do, we’re going to do what we want to do, and screw you. We said, wait a minute. You’re welcome to come in here. You’ve got a good idea. All you’ve got to do is follow these simple rules, none of which costs you any money.

But why is it necessary to regulate a service like Uber at all? Kalanick makes the case that because this is not an anonymous transaction, there are avenues of accountability that don’t involve the government.

You want to know that the driver is a good driver, that he’s been vetted, that he’s trained, that he understands his responsibility. You want to know that you aren’t going to get cheated by what you pay. Uber may be the most ethical group in the world, but I think “trust but verify” is the way we go. It just doesn’t cost anything for the verification; they should have no objection to it. Just because the people who use Uber may have the means and the needs and desires that are served only by upper-end service doesn’t mean that they can’t be subjected to something they don’t like.

You’re 83 years old, and you’re doing work that would strain a man 20 years younger. How long do you want to keep doing this?

I certainly want to see this first phase done. I have to get those smart meters and those dome lights done and set the platform to go forward on those sedan regulations. It also depends on what other offers are out there.

You’re not the retiring type, it seems.

No, and I took a financial bath in 2008 and 2009 when I was in the housing business, building senior housing on the Eastern Shore. I have to keep an eye on the financial needs, too. Frankly, if the right offer comes along, I’m going to deal with me first. But in the meantime, I’m not going to leave anybody in the lurch. You also have to ask the mayor. I serve at his pleasure. You never know what his pleasure is going to be.

Perhaps he has another things to deal with at the moment.

He has a lot more to be concerned about in the city than what we’re doing, and I like to think we’re doing something really unusual and really fast-moving in changing something very important.

By  |  06:58 PM ET, 08/06/2012

 
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