Taxi Collector

November 2, 2012

With Metro completely shut down and Capital Bikeshare closed this past Monday, taxis were pretty much the only option for folks without cars who needed to get somewhere. But passengers had to pay extra for them because the D.C. Taxicab Commission tacked on a $15 emergency surcharge throughout the storm.

Oy. I often feel like the taxi drivers in this city want to be loathed.

And then I meet Desta. His vehicle is comfortable and clean, his demeanor friendly, and he’s exactly the person you hope pulls up when you’re standing on a street corner flailing an arm. He’s also one of the first cabbies in the District to sign on for the MyTaxi app, which lets riders book a trip, pay for the ride and rate the driver, all via cellphone.

“The app is a bridge between the passenger and driver,” says Desta, who’s already had more than 20 fares through the system and picked me up for a spin with MyTaxi’s D.C. general manager, Yonis Benitez. “I can only find passengers on the street as I drive. This gives me the option of the surrounding area, too. And a passenger can call from inside.”

The idea may sound familiar to anyone who’s used Uber, which relies on a similar platform to summon black cars and SUVs. The difference is that MyTaxi taps into Washington’s cab network.

The app won’t cost passengers more (drivers are on the hook for a small fee in exchange for the additional business), and it manages to address one of the most frequent complaints about D.C. taxi drivers: They sometimes refuse to take you to your destination.

When drivers accept a ride through the app, Benitez explains, they know only where they’re picking you up. Once they’ve agreed to do it, they get more details — including where you want to go — and it’s too late to back out. (Those who balk risk getting kicked off the app.)

“If for any reason I don’t pick them up, I’ll have to explain why,” Desta says. “I can’t pick up a passenger on the street first.”

What the app won’t help with, for now, is the difficulty of getting a cab in certain neighborhoods. Benitez won’t reveal exactly how many cabbies in the city are using it other than it’s “in the hundreds.” But since most cabbies cruise around downtown, and the ones using the app select a certain radius they’re willing to travel to pick up a fare, MyTaxi presents a challenge for folks who live farther from the regular routes. As the network of cabs grows, Benitez vows, more of the city will have coverage.

With more cabs enrolled, passengers will also be able to take better advantage of the rating system. Not only can you set your preferences to get exclusively 5-star cabs, you can also come up with a list of your favorite drivers (like, say, Desta) and have that group alerted first. That gives cabbies an incentive to top expectations, both to get repeat business and to pull in new customers.

Like David Hasselhoff, MyTaxi is huge in Germany. Now it’s focusing on the States, starting with Washington — where it can conveniently share an office with its investor, car2go.

“We want to revolutionize how city dwellers get around,” Benitez says. “You don’t need a vehicle. I take a car2go to a restaurant and I have a drink, so I call a taxi.”

And, hopefully, it’s Desta who shows up.

$5

The amount of the taxi voucher you’ll get by entering your email at Washington.mytaxi.com. Download the app (iPhone or Android) and enter the code from the site. Valid through Nov. 30.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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