Nearly everyone was in agreement: Alexandria's taxi system was broken. The city's hundreds of drivers were unhappy, customers were dissatisfied with service and change was needed.
After years of debate and negotiation, change arrived last month with the launch of Alexandria Union Cab, a cooperative taxi company owned and democratically controlled by its 140 drivers, who collectively defected from the city's other six cab companies to take control of their futures, they said.
With the rollout of the co-op's fleet of gray taxis Feb. 1, Union Cab became the second-largest taxi company in the city. It is one of only a half-dozen taxi cooperatives in the nation and the first in Virginia.
The company is the result, in large part, of a host of new regulations approved by the City Council in June 2005 to reform Alexandria's taxi industry. The changes opened the door for the formation of new taxi companies and gave drivers something they hadn't had since 1982 -- the freedom to change their affiliation from one taxi company to another.
"It wasn't always easy to come up with solutions to improve customer service without creating a large disbenefit for the companies or owner-operators," said Tom Culpepper, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. "It was very much a balancing act."
The reforms were sweeping, governing such things as the age of taxis allowed to operate (eight years) to a requirement that every cab company take a certain number of dispatch calls a day (at least two per cab). Officials said the changes would provide better service for passengers and more rights and leverage for drivers.
Change has been easier for some than others. Four companies already are on probation for failing to meet the regulations, and city officials said they are sure the new system and tumultuous period of change will spell the end for more than a few of Alexandria's taxi operations.
"I won't say that there won't be disruption and discomfort for a while, but we knew that would be part of this change," said Alexandria City Council member Rob Krupicka (D), who spent years working with taxi drivers and city officials to formulate the new rules. "Hopefully, when the dust settles, we end up in a year or two with a much stronger taxi industry."
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Cab company owners had the most to lose under the changes. Now many, particularly those whose drivers relied on fares from Reagan National Airport, say they are struggling to survive.
Abdul Karim, owner of King Cab, said that he is working to get the company off probation but that it is difficult to meet the new guidelines because there are too many taxis serving the city and too few calls for service.
Karim said he has put additional money into advertising. His company is responding to more dispatch calls since the regulations were enacted, about 25 a day, but it's still far from meeting the city requirement of two calls per day for each of his 52 drivers, he said.
He has kept his weekly stand dues low, about $45, so he is not concerned that drivers will leave for other companies, he said. The question is whether he will still be in business come September, when the city's nine-month probationary period expires.
"The law is the law," Karim said. "I'm not against it. I'm trying my best to do something to stay in business as long as I can."
Charles Shin, whose family has owned Columbus Cab since 1982, said it's struggling, too. The small company can't afford to have 24-hour dispatch service, Shin said. It also lacks a vehicle compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Shin calls the new regulations and their demands on small companies "ridiculous" and thinks he will be forced to close.
"I'm ready for the day they shut me down. I have zero options," he said.
Shin said he thinks the city's real goal is to weed out the smallest cab companies.
To some degree, city officials agree, saying they expect the field to be winnowed down to the best of the bunch. Union Cab could be one of the survivors, they said.
"We're optimistic about Union Cab for a lot of reasons," Culpepper said. "We thought it was a business model that deserved a chance to see if it could succeed."
* * * Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Yimer, vice president of the Union Cab co-op, has been driving a taxi in Alexandria for nine years, eight of which were spent fighting City Hall for expanded rights for cabdrivers.
His complaint, and that of many other drivers, was that Alexandria was operating under a decades-old policy that gave the city's privately owned taxi companies sole control over the operating licenses that allowed taxi drivers to pick up passengers in the city.
Drivers said that they could not exercise even the most basic leverage against their employers: quitting and going to work for another company. They said they were subject to abusive treatment, arbitrary discipline and unchecked increases in taxi stand dues, which could reach up to $170 a week, depending on the company with which they were affiliated.
Alexandria taxi drivers provide their own vehicles and pay for insurance, gas and mechanical repairs. They keep the fares they collect, which drivers said average $80 a day.
In general, stand dues are used to fund advertising and dispatch systems. But many drivers contended that company owners would instead pocket the fees.
"We drivers took all the risk, and the companies took all the money," Yimer said. "The system was like sharecropping."
On the other side of the equation were the cab companies, whose owners said that keeping licenses in the companies' possession helped to regulate drivers and ensure that customers were being picked up on time, treated courteously and charged fairly.
But customers said that they seldom received prompt, satisfactory service. They complained about taxis that never showed up and vehicles that were so decrepit they would have been taken out of service long ago in other cities.
Customers were so unhappy, officials said, that they had largely given up on Alexandria's cabs, routinely calling Arlington's Red Top Cab and other companies outside the city.
"That was clearly one of the indicators we looked at that told us we needed to make changes," Krupicka said. "The drivers weren't happy, the customers weren't satisfied. We had a lot of room on both sides to improve."
Taxi drivers said that they suffered unhappiness over their arrangement with the city for more than two decades and that their concerns were magnified after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. National Airport was closed for several weeks afterward, and the income of drivers who derived much of their pay from shuttling passengers to and from the airport evaporated.
Many were forced to seek help paying their rent and other bills through more than $500,000 in grants administered by Tenants and Workers United, an advocacy organization that works with immigrant and low-income residents in Northern Virginia.
It was during that time that Yimer and a few other drivers decided that more could be done to change their plight. So they approached Tenants and Workers United about finding a way to change the rules governing the city's taxi system with the hope of giving drivers more freedom.
Jon Liss, Tenants and Workers United's executive director, heard the drivers' complaints and worked with city leaders to come up with new rules.
"We spent four years talking about different plans," Liss said. "Every 10 minutes there was a new plan. Plans, counter-plans and more plans. But the then-taxi code and the monopoly it fostered was bad for drivers and the community. It was in everyone's interest to have a competitive industry."
The new taxi code was built on the concepts of giving drivers control over their licenses and allowing a certain percentage of them to change companies each year to create competition. The regulations also require cab companies to respond to a minimum number of dispatch trips a day.
In addition, they set standards for dispatch response times and a requirement that all of the city's seven taxi fleets have cabs that can provide transportation for people with disabilities.
Before the ordinance was adopted, the average age of a taxi in Alexandria was several years older than those allowed in neighboring jurisdictions.
"No joke, we had a taxi that started off as a New York police car before becoming a New York cab," Krupicka said. "Then, when it outlived its usefulness, it went to one more jurisdiction and then it came to Alexandria. We had no rules about how old a taxi cab could be."
From Union Cab's dispatch center on Mount Vernon Avenue, Masud Olomi scanned three computer screens telling him the location of each of the fleet's cabs. The system, which uses Global Positioning System technology, cost the co-op more than $50,000, and drivers say the investment has been worth it.
"We're beating everyone's dispatch time by 11 seconds!" Olomi said.
In addition to owning a share of the company, Union's drivers pay only $45 a week in stand fees, a vast reduction in cost for most.
Jim Megson, a senior consultant with Boston-based ICA Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes employee-owned enterprises, helped Union Cab form its co-op.
"The hope for this co-op, as in all co-ops, is there's a greater reason for people to provide good service because they own the company," Megson said. "This is a group of pretty savvy people."
After years of fighting for the rights they say they were denied while they worked for other cab companies, Union drivers say they are now fighting to win back riders who use non-Alexandria cab companies.
"What we needed was competition and customer satisfaction," Yimer said. "If the customers are satisfied, they'll keep calling us."