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D.C.’s cabbies fear being pushed out of taxi business

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Some D.C. taxis, passengers complain, are old, rickety, hot and smelly; the cabbies don’t take credit cards; they’re illegally choosy about whom they pick up, and they pay more attention to their phone calls than to their driving.

But D.C. cabs are also cheaper and more plentiful than those in many other big cities — 8,000 taxis for 600,000 people, compared with 13,000 for New York’s 8.2 million residents. Unlike in most cities, Washington’s cabbies are nearly all owner-operators; the big fleets that dominate taxi service elsewhere do not exist here. Yet.

Now, that may all be on the cusp of dramatic change as a wave of additional regulations and a burst of new competition combine to alter the city’s taxi landscape. D.C. cabbies, always a cranky bunch, now waver between outrage and despair. Their incomes, they say, have plummeted, and the new rules could force them to leave the business.

The D.C. Council last week approved an overhaul of taxi regulations aimed at modernizing a business that council members said has failed for decades to provide efficient, safe transportation. Ron Linton, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, says the goal is to finally ensure that all D.C. cabs be late-model vehicles that are painted in one identifiable color, accept credit cards and use modern technology to keep drivers honest.

But on the city’s streets, the slowly churning wheels of regulation can barely keep pace with swift changes in how people get around — in the sleek black sedans of the Uber service, a California-based taxi service that doesn’t operate under taxi rules, and in the city’s aging cabs, where life, drivers say, has become a catalogue of miseries.

Capitol Hill to
Swampoodle, $8.40

Larry Frankel has been hacking on D.C. streets for 17 years. The 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis he leases has 156,060 miles on it, but the ride is smooth and the interior immaculate.

Frankel, 59, his salt-and-pepper hair in a boyish shag, used to work five days a week, eight or 10 hours a day. But over the past few years, as the city switched from the zone fare system to meters, his income dropped by about 30 percent, he says. To make ends meet, he drives seven days a week, often for 12 to 14 hours at a stretch.

“Cabdrivers working 10 to 12 hours a day don’t tend to be very pleasant,” says Frankel, who loves to chat with passengers.

Frankel used to lease a newer car every two years. Now, he says, he can’t afford any change. “With less income, we can’t replace or repair our cars,” he says, “so, yes, the customer notices the cabs are getting worse.”

Three years ago, after his income dropped from about $200 a day under the zone system to less than $150 a day, Frankel had to take in two roommates at his house near RFK Stadium. “I’m 59 years old, and I’ve never had roomies in my life,” he says.

Columbia Heights
to Penn Quarter, $17

Roger Whyte, 26, an event planner, waits in his apartment building for his 10 a.m. ride to D.C. Superior Court for jury duty. He could have walked five blocks to the U Street Metro station, but the mercury is pushing into the 80s, and his perfectly pressed pink dress shirt is on the line.

“I spend so much time and effort getting clean and getting ready,” he says. “Why do that just to get all dirty and sweaty?”

So Whyte has turned, once again, to Uber, the by-appointment luxury-sedan service that came to Washington seven months ago. Whyte has used Uber twice in the past week. He still takes regular cabs but likes Uber’s town cars as much for the plush leather seats and free bottled water as for the consistent service.

“There are great cabdrivers, but there’s also the opposite of that,” he says.

With Uber drivers, “I get a ‘Good morning. How are you? Do you have a special route you’d like me to take?’ They are never on the phones. There’s no radio.”

The Uber man’s name appears on Whyte’s phone, along with a photo, tag number and a customer rating. When the black sedan pulls up, a neatly trimmed man in a white shirt and tie steps out and opens the door for Whyte.

Mohammad Bardawil, 56, like all Uber drivers, owns his sedan. Uber doesn’t directly employ drivers or own vehicles. Bardawil runs his limo service and picks up Uber customers as time allows. Uber’s software lets him sign up for duty with a touch of his iPhone. Aspiring Uber drivers must pass a test on D.C. geography. Uber then inspects the driver’s car; nothing over seven years old is permitted.

Other customers have given Bardawil 4.6 stars out of five. When Whyte had a bad experience with a different driver and gave him only two stars, Uber wrote with profuse apologies and promised to talk to the driver. Try complaining to the D.C. Taxicab Commission about a cabbie, Whyte says; the response is often chirping crickets.

Today’s trip costs $4 or $5 more than a cab, and the tip is included. Since Whyte has used a credit card to establish an account, that makes it a cashless transaction. He says the convenience is worth a few dollars. “I don’t go to Starbucks,” he says. “So my luxury is doing this.”

Downtown Washington
to National Airport, $16.50

A D.C. cab passes by, but it has Virginia license tags — a sure sign the taxi is illegal. Frankel, incensed, waves his hands in the air as he curses the other driver and wishes the city would get tougher about enforcing hack rules.

Frankel, the cabbie representative, says most drivers want the District to reform the industry. He’s fine with regularizing the taxis’ color scheme so vehicles stand out better on the street. He’s eager to have hack inspectors on the streets late at night, when gypsy cabs steal business from legitimate cabbies.

And he wants the city to figure out a fair way to treat Uber, which he says is grabbing a big chunk of business. Frankel says the city should make sedan services run on meters, so they can offer their fancier service at a regulated price.

Instead, he sees politicians changing the taxi business haphazardly, without admitting to what he calls their real motive: “to push out owner-operators and bring in big fleets, destroying thousands of small businesses.”

Taxi drivers’ activism and dollars helped oust Adrian M. Fenty as mayor and get Vincent C. Gray elected in 2010. But many drivers now say Gray is much worse than Fenty. Not only did many fares decrease when meters were installed, but the city scrapped shared rides and eliminated night and fuel surcharges — blows to drivers’ income.

Frankel’s passenger, a woman heading home to Los Angeles, hears his tale and empathizes: “People here don’t realize how good they have it — where I live, it’s almost impossible to find cabs.”

Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill
to Union Station

Trolling for passengers, Sun taxi driver Bill Meles ticks off the problems with the new regulations and fixates on the city’s demand that cabbies install TVs in the back seat.

Last week, a day after the D.C. government awarded VeriFone Systems a contract worth more than $35 million to wire cabs for credit card payments, Global Positioning System tracking that will let the city monitor all trips and video advertising aimed at riders, the company’s stock surged by 11 percent.

Drivers won’t see any revenue from those TV ads.

“I have no objection to credit card readers because people don’t have cash,” says Meles, 59, an Eritrean immigrant who has been hacking for three decades. “But is it necessary for only one company to provide the machines?”

Meles already has a credit card machine in his 2004 Ford Crown Victoria, and he’s locked into a contract on it. Now he’ll have the city-mandated reader, too. “This one already costs me $50 a month,” he says. “Now, I’ll own two!”

He thinks he knows why the city is targeting cabbies. “Ninety percent of cabdrivers live outside the city,” he says. “We don’t vote here.”

Union Station cab queue

The decision to put GPS units in every taxi is an outrage to cabbie Efrem Alemu.

“It’s a violation of your rights,” Alemu, 49, says from the front seat of his 2003 Chevy Impala. “Why are they tracking me? I am not a criminal.”

Worse, Alemu says, is a new rule imposing suspensions on drivers who get five inspection violations in a year.

It’s very easy, he says, to get slapped with violations. Once, he got a ticket for failing to put up a “No Smoking” sticker on his rear window.

“That cost me $25!” he says. “One officer can put you out of business. What if your car is too dirty? You’re out of business.”

The new rules will push him, his wife and two small children into poverty, Alemu says. “I’ll go on food stamps and housing assistance,” he says. “I’ll be a burden for the rest of everyone’s life.”

Georgetown to
Dupont Circle, $16

Cabdrivers might find Janet Donovan a bit demanding.

“When I get into a cab, I ask, ‘Do you plan to be talking on the phone?’ And if they say yes, I get out,” she said. “I hate D.C. cabs.”

Donovan, a publicist who has lived in Washington since 1971, has had too many bad experiences. Once, a taxi she had just gotten in pulled over so the driver could get some water. Half a mile later, she says, he pulled into a gas station to fill up. In a hurry, she asked the driver to let her out. But he locked her in and drove to the fish market in Southwest Washington — not her destination.

Donovan has become an ardent Uber user. She waits only two minutes for an Uber to pull up and whisk her to an event at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center.

The driver, Dzemal Huric, 34, asks whether she’s comfortable. He picks up about 10 riders a day for Uber during time off from his day job as a chauffeur for the Four Seasons hotel. Uber takes a 20 percent cut. “You’re not going to get rich off of it,” he says, but it’s worth giving up his two days off.

Five Star Cab Association service bay, Southwest

Senor Hassan, as he’s known to his fellow hacks, is a legend in the D.C. cab business, a Syrian immigrant with a huge laugh and a mini-fleet of 22 cabs. He came here in 1966 after the government nationalized his farm.

America and the taxi business gave him a new home, freedom to make his own hours and a belief that the market works best if left to its own devices. Now 74, he is appalled by the city’s decree that he take his cabs off the road because they are eight, 10 or 12 years old. “They run beautiful,” he says. “They pass inspection. Why don’t you get new buses and trains every five years? How about planes? They don’t make them get new planes every five years because the rich people who own the plane would say to them, ‘Kiss my a--.’ ”

Hassan had to spend $400 each on the meters the city mandated a few years ago; under the new rules, those meters would become trash, replaced by the VeriFone system, and he’d have to buy new $45,000 handicapped-accessible cabs to make up 20 percent of his fleet.

“I’ll be out of business,” he says. “I can’t even afford to buy my own new car. I’m finished. Finished.”

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