The rapid rise of ride-share services, led by the multibillion-dollar Uber, has galvanized the Washington region’s taxi industry in an unprecedented spirit of cooperation.
In Maryland, for example, companies that have long been at odds over fares in southern Prince George’s County have come together to protest Uber. In Northern Virginia, an alliance has emerged between Alexandria taxi drivers and a cab company owner to not only fight the services, but also work on modernizing their fleet.
Cabdrivers are joining labor unions, labor organizers and cab companies are lobbying jointly, and rival taxi executives are sharing notes and filing complaints and lawsuits. Collectively they are resisting an industry that they say threatens their livelihoods and the well-being of consumers.
“We are usually at each other’s throats,” said attorney John Lally, who represents the interests of cab companies in Prince George’s and has joined with competitor Veolia Transportation to lobby for regulation of ride-sharing. “You know, the old saying is, ‘The enemy of my enemy can be my friend.’ ”
The exponential growth of Uber, Lyft and SideCar — which through technology connect ride-seekers with private car owners looking to earn extra cash — threatens a taxi industry that critics say has been slow to modernize and keep up in a technology-driven era. The San Francisco-based start-ups say they are expanding transportation options.
Cabdrivers say the new services have an unfair advantage because, in most cases, they are allowed to operate free of the rules, regulations and licensing requirements of traditional taxis.
“This has caused us to form an alliance to make those guys play by the same rules that we have to play by,” Lally said.
The loose alliance has had some success. Last week, a Maryland commission ruled that Uber must abide by state regulations and apply for a permit to continue operations in the state. The action came in response to a complaint filed by Veolia.
The same day, however, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced that the commonwealth had reached an agreement to allow Uber and Lyft authority to operate there, reversing a cease-and-desist order and easing tensions between the companies and Virginia officials.
“We are disappointed that (Virginia) gave these folks temporary authority, but it is not open entry. There are things they have to do to comply,” said Dwight Kines, a Veolia spokesman. The company has a large taxi fleet in Baltimore; it also operates Washington Flyer airport services and Envirocab in Arlington County.
“We are not trying to put Uber or anybody out of business — they are going to be around. Their technology is good, there is no doubt about it, but there is a reason for regulation,” he said, and it should apply to all.
In the District, cabbies have an ally in the city’s taxi regulatory body, whose leader has maintained that Uber and ride-sharing services are operating illegally in the city. The D.C. Taxicab Commission recently proposed rules requiring Uber, Lyft and SideCar to buy insurance, put drivers through background checks and force them to have their vehicles inspected.
The D.C. Council, however, has been more welcoming of ride-sharing, but union leaders say pressure has at least led the council to postpone signing legislation they say would give the private sedan industry a free pass. The council is expected to vote on the proposal after the summer recess, giving taxi allies time to advocate through lawmakers, mayoral candidates and regulators.
Taxi drivers know their future is in peril. Their struggles predate Uber, some say, citing battles with cab companies, stressful working conditions and low wages. The most pressing need, they say, is to modernize to stay competitive with ride-share services.
And they have sought refuge and strength in organizing.
“The old way to do business needs to change,” said Becaye Traore, 48, a Montgomery County cabbie who helped organize fellow drivers to join the National Taxi Workers Alliance this month.
And while competition from ride-sharing services is a problem, he said, the main fight for drivers remains “to better ourselves to make sure that we have better living wages.”
In joining, they say, they have the support of a union that has dealt with ride-share challenges in New York, where the union represents about 18,000 taxi drivers, and where Uber has adjusted to a different business structure, operating as a commercial carrier, meaning drivers are commercially licensed and their vehicles are registered with the state.
“There is a lot of vulnerability and anger that drivers feel over the ride-share program,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the alliance. “It definitely has brought an urgency to the organizing.”
That urgency is seen, she said, in the union’s growth over the past year. In addition to a longtime affiliate in Philadelphia, the union recently added a charter in Austin, plus Montgomery, which has about 1,000 cabbies. It also is organizing in Prince George’s and Chicago.
Desai said she hopes for successes in the Washington suburbs similar to those in the New York area, where Lyft recently was forced to delay a launch. Lyft’s refusal to comply with city and state regulations prompted the state to issue a temporary restraining order.
The Uber challenge, said Desai, has energized cabbies nationwide who, as independent contractors, struggle with low wages, no benefits and long hours. The average annual income for a cabbie in the United States is $22,820, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Union membership in the District also has grown, going from about 1,000 when D.C. cabbies affiliated with the Teamsters last October to more than 2,000. Alexandria and Arlington cabdrivers have been working with the Tenants and Workers United, and have made headway in negotiations with cab companies about new technology to be competitive with ride-sharing services.
Uber also has inspired cabbies in the Washington region — and around the world — to take to the streets in protest, urging government officials to level the playing field. Others have taken the fight to court, including seven Northern Virginia cab companies that filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft last month, arguing that the services were operating without the required licenses and permits.
“These companies are basically stealing work from drivers who are doing everything completely legal,” Teamsters organizer Joel Wood said.
For D.C. cabbies, he said, the battle is about the unfair advantage they say ride-share operators have because they are not required to follow the traditional cab rules. An overhaul of the District’s taxicab system meant that cabbies had to update their cars with new paint and credit card machines.
“We are not afraid of competition, but we want fair competition,” Wood said.
Cabbies and their allies say they understand they need to develop modern hailing methods and speedier dispatch systems to remain competitive. Some cab companies say they are working on technology similar to Uber’s to make dispatching faster and more efficient, while others say they have long used similar digital platforms, including the taxi-hailing app Curb.
The industry also is working to educate consumers. It inspired the national “Who’s Driving You?” campaign, by the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, which tracks insurance alerts issued in 20 states and the District warning passengers about inadequate insurance coverage among ride-sharing companies.
As the taxi industry comes together to face new competition, some say they hope the cooperation can extend to address the larger issues the industry faces, such as improving working conditions for drivers.
“We have always had illegal pickups and it’s always been an economic issue for drivers, especially in times of recession, but now multibillion-dollar companies are orchestrating these illegal pickups,” Desai said. “Politically it has felt like a lost cause, but at the heart of it is an economic fight, and the workers are fighting it.”