Are gypsy cabdrivers to blame for D.C. midnight taxi madness?


Amtrak police Sgt. Kevin Dauphin directs bleary-eyed passengers to taxis as they get off the last trains from New York and Boston in the early morning hours of Monday at Union Station in Washington. Dauphin helps passengers double-up when possible while attempting to keep peace among those left in long lines. (Doug Kapustin/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 7, 2012

If you think the problem of sketchy cabs in the District is appalling during the day, try hailing one at night.

As my colleague Robert Samuels so deftly described in a front-page story a few days ago, there’s chaos and cutthroat competition for cabs after midnight at Union Station as well as at many bars, restaurants and nightclubs. I’ve witnessed it myself.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Here’s the thing. After midnight, many of the drivers out there aren’t real D.C. taxi drivers.

So says Larry Frankel, a cabdriver and organizer who leads the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers, which represents about 5,000 drivers.

“About one in four drivers out there are gypsies,” he maintains.

Frankel wisecracks and has a hacking laugh that explodes often and at weird times. He’s what you’d imagine a cab driver would sound like, if you needed one for an old-time movie.

And yes, the scene outside Union Station after midnight, Frankel’s preferred shift for about 17 years, is crazy, he says.

“You wanna say Wild West? Okay. It’s basically true,” he says with a laugh.

Past taxi commissioners have estimated that there 2,000 gypsy and other unauthorized cabs operating in the District.

Current commission Chairman Ron Linton says there’s really no way to know how many gypsy cabs are out there.

But Frankel insists he has seen a huge increase in illegal cabs flooding into the city since the fall, when Linton announced that the agency could no longer afford to have hack inspectors work the streets from midnight to 6 a.m.

With that unintentional all-clear, cabs from all over have poured in to tap into the city’s livelier nights.

“It’s killed my business,” Frankel says.

“He’s partly right,” Linton concedes. “There are gypsies out there, and that’s going to change.”

Linton is asking for more funding for inspectors and is meeting with Union Station, Amtrak and D.C. Police on plans for enforcement.

There are also taxis from Prince George’s County and all over Virginia coming in late at night, defying jurisdictional agreements, Frankel says. There are also some legit cabs whose drivers sublet their cars at night. And a lot come from Loudoun County, where taxi licenses are relatively unregulated, he adds.

And the scariest of all are the straight-up gypsies — plain old cars “that someone sticks a hokey-pokey taxi light on that you can buy anywhere” — who simply start driving. A lot of them have no taxi license, no insurance and sometimes no driver’s license.

“And people have no recourse,” Frankel says. “They take down a number and a name and when they call the taxi commission to complain, their information makes no sense because it isn’t real.”

It’s not all hoopties elbowing in on the action, either. A bad ride can come via a pretty cool app — Uber. That’s a service that links you to a ride. You even get to watch it approach on your smartphone screen, Death Star laser-ray style.

Only problem is, Uber was recently busted for basically operating outside the realm of D.C. taxi regulation, what D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) called a “regulatory no man’s land.”

“HA-ha-ha-ha!” Frankel laughs. “Those gypsies are now starting to use Uber! Ha!”

Frankel even laughed when he unloaded on me for a recent column about the third-class status of our taxis.

I have a hard time believing all those horrid rides (and those of the dozens of readers who e-mailed me with similar stories) are the work of only gypsy cabs.

But Frankel makes a different case.

“Think about it. If one in four are gypsies, there’s a minimum of about 30,000 bad fares that happen in the city every day,” he hack-laughs.

The biggest problem at night, he says, is that when it’s 3 a.m. and Metro is closed, and you’re back from a train trip or drunk after a night out, you don’t care what kind of cab you’re stepping into.

“If the cab stops, people get in,” he says.

Yeah, but the truth is, you don’t really have to be drunk to step into a skeezy cab. It’s not like there is a huge difference between a legit and an outlaw cab in the city. Legal cabs come in all different paint patterns, dubious vintage, spotty use of credit card machines and few, if any, GPS units.You don’t have to try hard to impersonate this fleet.

And yet, drivers are fighting the commission on nearly every proposal to modernize the city’s cabs.

The first step in beating the black market cabs? Don’t look like one.

Follow Petula Dvorak on Twitter @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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