In Meter Proposal, Cabbies See Threat to a Way of Life

Aklile Redie, vice president of the D.C. Professional Taxi Drivers Association, with passenger Charmayne Marsh of Texas. "This is the only place in the nation where you can really be an independent cabdriver," he said. (Photos By Melina Mara/Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

When they came to this country, to the nation's capital, driving a cab offered treasured independence, a way to preserve dignity in a daunting place. For a few thousand dollars, they could buy an old police car at auction, repaint it and go into business for themselves. They could provide for their families.

But these are anxious times for the Ethiopian immigrants who make up one of the largest groups of taxi drivers in the District. They and other cabdrivers are concerned about Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's impending decision about meters -- due Oct. 17 -- and how it might affect an industry that has provided a livelihood and a way of life.

Many drivers feel their very culture is at stake. Driving a cab in the District has been a reliable source of income for generations of minorities and immigrants, and its small-town, small-business aspect has appeal in its self-sufficiency.

Now, for the first time in decades, the District's unique zone system might be about to change. Many drivers fear Washington is moving toward a model common in other cities, with fewer cabdrivers licensed and power centered in a handful of big companies. They fear an upheaval that will eventually force them off the road.

"This is not just a taxi -- it's a small business. We own this business, just like a store. And they're trying to take it out of our hands," said Wegen Tadesse of the 900-member Ethiopian Ethio-American United Cab Owner Association.

The concern about meters might seem an overreaction. But many see meters as the ultimate regulatory tool, the first in a series of bureaucratic demands that would strip them of their autonomy. Like many small-business owners, the drivers prefer less government meddling. They wonder, what's next? Limited work hours or caps on taxi licenses?

The vast majority of the city's 7,500 taxi drivers are independent contractors.

"This is the only place in the nation where you can really be an independent cabdriver," said Aklile Redie, Ethiopian-born vice president of the D.C. Professional Taxi Drivers Association.

Cabdrivers from several groups plan to rally today from 2 to 5 p.m. at Freedom Plaza to send a message to Fenty: Don't choose the time-and-distance meters. Fenty (D) is under the gun to install meters in cabs or opt out under a provision included in legislation approved by Congress last fall. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D.-Mich.), who added the provision, said he was tired of getting complaints from constituents who were confused by zones.

The prices of individual trips would change, with short trips usually cheaper by meter and longer trips cheaper by zone. But it is not clear whether drivers' total incomes would rise or fall.

Some drivers said they could accept a compromise in the form of the zone meter, a fare-calculator device that preserves zones but with an element of accountability in a Global Positioning System device that spit outs receipts.

Over about 15 years, Ethiopian drivers have become one of Washington's largest driver groups, making up 20 percent to 50 percent of the city's taxi drivers, according to various groups. The D.C. Taxicab Commission has no figures, Chairman Leon J. Swain Jr. said. Some of the drivers were teachers, lawyers or engineers in their native country.

"Washington is really blessed because of the ratio of educated cabdrivers, probably the highest in the country," said driver Gedle-Kirstos Asayehegn, who is working on a master's degree, his second, at Johns Hopkins University. "I work at the airport, I've got wireless Internet in my car, and I do my schoolwork while I'm waiting on customers."

Asayehegn, 41, left his home in Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, in 1983 and settled in the Washington area. He was working as a hotel bartender about 13 years ago when he realized that several doormen also drove cabs part time. "I queried what was going on, and they told me how to do it," he said.

He has driven off and on since then, proud now to be driving his own hybrid cab. Since the birth of a son 2 1/2 years ago, he appreciates the flexibility even more and doesn't want that to change.

"The meter is not really the issue, but it's the other issues behind the meter," he said. "I ask, what is the purpose of changing the system, which is working really very well?"

Wegen Tadesse, 43, left Ethiopia when he was 21. For a while, he drove tractor-trailers, but he began driving cabs in Washington a few years ago to spend more time with his two young children.

"When Congress is out, we don't have jobs," he said. "People think we make money, but if you see a cabstand, one cab is going to wait one hour, two hours. That's why we work more hours." He starts driving at 3 a.m., he said, and goes home about 5 p.m., a schedule that would be impossible if he worked for a company, he said.

Degarge Lakew, 40, taught high school social studies in Ethiopia. Today, he is a cabdriver who manages two companies, Grand Cab and Travelers Cab, which employ 373 drivers, all but six from his former country.

Drivers he knows are anxious.

"There are mixed positions, but I can assure you the great majority of drivers are unhappy at the thought of meters," he said. "Not because we're going to lose money, but because the whole business is going to be affected."

Everyone is awaiting the mayor's next move, he said.

"This is a sensitive and critical issue," he said, "and every driver is keeping an eye on what the decision is going to be."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company