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TheRootDC
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Posted at 09:30 AM ET, 09/28/2012

Uber: When cabs whiz by, it’s a pick-me-up

As a black man living in the city, I pray that the District doesn’t run Uber — the service that lets people reserve luxury-sedan rides via their smartphones — out of town. Even in our “post-racial society,” one of the realities of being a brother is that hailing a cab is a nearly impossible task.

It’s a familiar story: If I’m not wearing a shirt and tie, I’ll rarely try to get a cab. And if I’ve got on my usual get-up of mohawk, T-shirt and
Taxi's lined up by Union Station. (The Washington Post)
Vans sneakers, people laugh openly if I stick out my hand and/or yell, “Taxi!” It’s like the expressions on their faces say: “Ha! You think you’re getting a cab looking like that? Negro — please.”

That’s why I’m dismayed by the proposed regulations that could potentially put Uber out of business. It would be a step backward for those of us who are willing to pay more money for a respectable transaction rather than take our chances on the street and be degraded in the process.

Last week, as reported by the Post’s Mike DeBonis, the D.C. Taxicab Commission moved to establish a “sedan class” of vehicles for hire that would include the vehicles used by Uber, which doesn’t own cars but arranges rides and collects payments for their car owners. Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, has said the proposed rules are “draconian” and an effort to end his businesses. Before any requirements take effect, they would have to be published, undergo a hearing and a 30-day comment period, and then perhaps be revised. It’s likely that the D.C. Council will have a significant say on how the regulations proceed.

But one thing that hasn’t been brought up in public discussion is how Uber increases the quality of  life for those of us who are regularly dissed by taxi drivers.

If you think I’m overplaying the difficulty of hailing cabs, ask around. Every man of color knows the time-tested tricks for finding your way into a taxi. There’s the hotel lobby maneuver. There’s also the bait-and-switch trick with a person of a different race. I’ve even gotten rides from police officers when cabs refused to stop for me.

But for one man, that struggle has become somewhat of a teaching moment.

Kyle Dargan, who moved from Georgetown to Fort Dupont in 2009, appreciates the effort when he does get a ride.

“I can tell when [a cabdriver’s] anxious, but they’ll still go. And then I’m like, ‘Okay, because you took me, even though I saw you had some apprehension, I’ll give you a little extra tip. I just want to show you that everything’s cool. It’s not a war zone. You can get mugged in Dupont as easily as you get mugged on Ridge Road,” he said.

Dargan, 31, a professor at American University, considers it a form of community outreach. “That’s the thing. No one says anything — you just deal with the fact you can’t get a cab . . . rather than saying, ‘Yo, why don’t you do something about this?’ ” he said. “That’s what I try to do when I’m talking to these cabdrivers. I say, ‘Hey, Southeast isn’t all crazy. You need to chill and not act so scared when someone asks for a ride across the river.’ ”

To be clear, I have nothing against cabdrivers. My father was a cabbie. I spent some of the most important, formative years of my life riding around in the front seat of my Uncle Johnny’s cab, who hacked for Capitol Cab and then Yellow Cab for more than 40 years.

But I have little sympathy for cabdrivers complaining that an unregulated sedan service is unfairly cutting into their business. If you want more customers, pick up more passengers and ride to more neighborhoods.

I’ll give D.C. Council member Jim Graham(D-Ward 1)some credit for opening his mind a bit at Monday’s hearing about Uber’s fate. He appeared as if he wanted to find a solution that works for everyone. I’m hopeful that if nothing else, all sides can agree that the demand is high enough for everyone to coexist, even if at different tiers of regulation.

Standing two blocks from the White House last month, I waited half an hour to get a cab. Ten empty ones passed me by. I know there are legal kinks to be worked out, but it would be unfortunate if the city managed to get rid of a useful company with a guiding principle based on the color of the money in your pocket and not the color of your skin.

Clinton Yates is a regular contributor to TheRootDC.

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By  |  09:30 AM ET, 09/28/2012

 
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