Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Do the District's taxicab riders refuse to pay their drivers?

October 20, 2011 - 02:30 PM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Here's a District taxicab confession for you: The D.C. Taxicab Commission struggles with communication and reform will be no easy task.

That was apparent last June when two reporters were arrested during a hearing for recording public proceedings. Later this summer, Mayor Vince Gray appointed 82-year-old Ron Linton to chair the commission, and he's got some heavy tasks in front of him, from taxi drivers who have long felt frustrated and ignored by the organization to passengers who feel they pay too much. Mike DeBonis recently pointed to the 170 or so D.C. citizens who want lower taxi fares on Facebook and notes another underlying problem: "There is an epidemic among cab drivers of not keeping in order the only official record of how much they drive and earn." Just yesterday, Mayor Gray and Linton announced that they would begin licensing green cabs in the District, a part of the broader reform efforts they've spoken about, including cabs' ability to accept credit cards). Some of these reforms may result in surcharges, and earlier this month, the Taxicab Commission announced they'd be removing $19 caps on taxi fare — the meter will just keep running. The only fare consolation is that the $1 gas surcharge ends in a month.

But who cares about higher fares if the passengers aren't paying?

Today the Taxicab Commission gathered for an informational hearing to, in the words of Linton, know "what issues need to be addressed by rule and regulation." The topic of the hearing was on, as the hearing's title expressed quite clearly, "Passengers' Failure to Pay," scheduled to begin in the One Judiciary Square's Old Council Chambers at 10 a.m. and allow for driver input on what would seem to be a significant problem in the wold of taxis. Taxi driver after taxi driver stepped up to address Linton, around a half dozen overall and often nervous and full of emotion. The chairman fielded their questions patiently, his voice never betraying emotion one way or another. The hearing began about 25 minutes late and continued until around 11:40 a.m.

"I have a Ph.D from the college of the streets. I know exactly what's happening out there," one driver named Earl Stoddard told Linton. "There are some people out there that think that catching a cab with no money is their right. We are the only public transportation system that gets paid at the end. Why can't we get paid when we do our job?"

The driver, born in D.C. and with decades of experience, offered a message echoed by the few other drivers present — some people out there in the District feel free to jump into a cab without the necessary money, and cab drivers are left with the bill. Passengers are drunk, passengers curse, and passengers sometimes have no interest in quibbling over their fare. Should passengers have to pay some money upfront? One driver even suggested that police officers will arrest the cab drivers if they press their customers to pay their fare.

At today's session, a man in a brown jacket and jeans headed to the podium and identified himself as Nathan Price of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association and affiliated with the Yellow Cab of Washington, D.C. "If we're here to talk about paying with advance, that's something that was put forth by the drivers ... We have a problem with jumpers. These people leave without paying. They cut across all age groups, all races, all economic groups ... It is true, a lot of drivers get upset that when you go into certain places in the District, it's difficult to be paid."

Price said there's often no recourse. If anyone gets arrested, according to Price, it tends to be the taxi driver.

"What is the basis for arresting the driver?" Linton asked.

"I don't know. This is something that's been going on for the last 15 years."

"I left the department in '98, and that's just absolutely amazing," Linton said. "And you're saying this is common?"

"It's extremely common."

Price shared an anecdote about when he was trying to get payment from two different passengers and only received payment from one. Police allegedly dismissed the situation upon arrival, saying he'd already been paid. One officer apparently told him that he would be thrown in jail if he kept insisting on payment.

"We've had drivers go from Washington to New York City and not get a dime," Price said. "It's nothing new."

Linton objected to the example, saying the instance in question crossed state boundaries and was not a District taxi driver issue. But he then raised his hand and looked right at the man and asked Price to find other drivers that Price knows. To ground any case, Linton would need a fully developed set of drivers who could speak to any problems with the police, who could speak to these issues of cab driver payment. He wanted "specifics," "examples," and to avoid a "generalized" perspective on what this problem may be among them. "Is it possible that we can accumulate...?" the chairman asked.

"A lot of times when a driver gets robbed," Price continued, "why report it?"

Linton distinguished between a robbery (a felony) and a theft of services (a misdemeanor). Price agreed that he'll reach out to as many drivers who are willing to come forth. But he described many as "horrified" at the idea of "speaking against" the MPD or other officials. "They feel if by stating the facts," Price said, "there could be retributions." Price said he tries to emphasize that they won't be, that they have rights.

The hearing often betrayed a failure to communicate easily among the different groups of individuals. "I have the most dangerous job in the world," Stoddard later declared to Linton. "I pick up strangers and they sit behind my head."

"But you don't want a glass partition?" Linton asked.

"No, no, no," the driver replied.

Linton faced a barrage of dissent, much of which seems to have developed throughout years of cultural divide between what the District's taxi drivers wanted and felt and how the Taxicab Commission has operated. One driver spoke of the "condescending tone" he had seen in the past and of the way drivers seemed like an "annoyance," how they were "shepherded." Despite those concerns, he told Linton he had hope for a "new era."

Some changes do seem to be on the way. Carolyn Robinson of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxi Drivers objected to the location of today's hearings and said there wasn't enough parking for drivers. How are these meetings more than "mere formality"? she wondered. Linton later said the D.C. Taxicab Commission has plans to move to the Penn Branch Shopping Center, where there should be plenty of parking.

The broader issue remains a question mark as the District's taxi industry evolves under Linton. How often do passengers refuse to pay their taxi drivers? Despite the emotion and insistence of the half dozen cab drivers today, a real picture of the problem remains difficult to grasp. Linton's instinct in compiling data is correct, and I hope that some of the cab drivers present today can assemble some anecdotes that speak to their concerns. Linton's request for this data seemed to trouble some. As Price said, some drivers see the commission as "scary" and they fear retribution. Robinson talked of how records only go back a certain number of years, of the challenge of marshaling those numbers. Linton quickly assured her he wasn't asking for thousands of drivers, simply a better picture. In my experience, I would believe some taxi passengers attempt to escape payment. No drunk person is a reliable passenger after happy hours, on Fridays and Saturdays. Multiple taxi drivers tell me of people who stumble into their vehicles without even knowing their addresses. As the D.C. taxi industry reforms, the question of how riders pay their fare will likely need to be considered.

"A section of the city isn't getting served because we don't want to deal with that drama," Stoddard said.

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