- Do you accept credit cards? (Photo: flickr/alexbarth)
The District's taxicabs are under a lot of scrutiny these days. One highly publicized comment derides them as "third-world" service, cited yesterday on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. People point to our D.C. cabs as stone age, backwards, and unprofessional. The emotion borders on disgust at times, surprisingly visceral, and has helped propel a government overhaul of the industry. Last month, Mayor Vince Gray, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells, and D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton stood together to announce a major initiative in which all taxis will have credit card readers, GPS tracking, and other modern devices installed within the next year. Yet annoyance at our cabs' purported backwardness has amplified in recent weeks, as people slam the D.C. taxi in their praise of new luxury car service Uber, which comes equipped with smartphone-hailing convenience, credit card readers, and a built-in tip.
And then there's that sense of class, which so many Uber fans emphasize when talking about their fondness for the service. They opt for a professional, smooth ride, and scoff at the idea that they can find that in the District's taxicabs. But D.C. has more than 8,000 cab drivers. Does the overwhelming narrative of terrible taxis capture what's been happening in D.C. throughout the last half decade? Certainly the District's cab service has a long way to go, but do people also miss the advancements taking place?
"Taxi drivers are not the Luddites painted in the press," said Matt Carrington, Taxi Magic's director of communications. "We follow this market very closely. That's not our experience at all."
Like Uber, Taxi Magic is focused on expanding the technology options of our casual cab rides but this company, founded in 2007 in Alexandria, Virginia, has sought to accomplish the mission by working with traditional taxicab fleets rather than offering an entirely new transportation option. People can download the Taxi Magic app and call a cab using their smartphones. The company also helps fleets install credit card readers. Taxi Magic works with seven fleets in the D.C. metro region — D.C. Yellow Cab, Arlington Red Top, Barwood Taxi, Alexandria Yellow Cab, Fairfax Yellow/Red Top, Loudoun Yellow Cab, and Red Top Sedan Service. The company works with close to 30,000 taxis around the country, Carrington told me, in 45 cities and with 75 fleets total. Locally, Taxi Magic records "a few thousand" rides a day from people using the service, and they charge fleets a negotiated price based on the number of rides that they provide.
- (Photo: Taxi Magic)
The demand for the technology that Uber and Taxi Magic offer is growing and fits into a broader narrative of transportation innovation that D.C. residents have embraced. Uber repeatedly emphasizes its convenience. Our city is hungry for that kind of service, whether it comes from a new luxury car service or comes shoved down the traditional taxi industry's throats by our city government — or more slowly, in pockets of innovation courtesy of the fleets that work with Taxi Magic.
Another growing theme in recent weeks concerns the regulation of taxis. Should the Taxicab Commission be calling out a service like Uber as "illegal" and impounding the service's cars? "What are the right taxi regulations?" asked Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert this week. "How much do we need to regulate to advance the public interest, and which regulations are just protecting a small group of people from needed competition?" The D.C. Council is equally concerned. "Instead of penalizing innovation, I believe that the District should be supporting it," Councilmember Mary Cheh told the Taxicab Commission yesterday.
Taxi Magic's Carrington points to the greater social need for correct regulation and tends to accept the Commission's mission. He says taxicab regulations, in the ideal sense, exist as "consumer protection" and should be seen as a municipal resource that benefits everyone. Drivers have to take a lot of riders whose fares they wouldn't necessarily want, low-income and fixed-income individuals. "You can imagine the little old lady down the block," Carrington told me. Regulations should help ensure both lower- and higher-end customers are served. That said, the taxi industry has apparently failed to accomplish such goals in reality — the Equal Rights Center reports "dozens of complaints" citing that D.C. cab drivers discriminate against African-Americans and the blind. The Center testified to that effect earlier this year and the Center's Kat Taylor told me then that drivers appeared quite unreceptive to the research and rider concerns. New technology has stretched the limits of our laws and regulations and will likely need to be adjusted to integrate services like Uber and any other hybrid that doesn't easily fit our current definitions. Who in the past could have imagined summoning a taxi by text?
One bright spot in the recent Uber controversy is, from Carrington's perspective, that more people are becoming aware of local travel apps and the ways technology can guide our rides. "Uber is a competing service [to Taxi Magic]," Carrington said, "but there's a great demand for taxi rides." The Taxi Magic app is still being downloaded and used as much as ever. Even as D.C.'s cabs disappoint many riders, the landscape will likely be different a year from now after the mayor's modernizing overhaul is implemented. Gray touted his taxicab reform and the appointment of "forward-thinking" Commissioner Linton among his first-year accomplishments, the only transportation news to receive such underscoring. Even the frustrations certain taxi drivers express about the overhaul have less to do with modernizing as much as a feeling of exclusion and the desire to modernize on their own schedule. Multiple drivers present at Mayor Gray's December press conference, including the outspoken Larry Frankel, noted that they already had the technology to accept credit cards installed in their cabs. Why wouldn't drivers elect to adopt the technology over time without government intrusion? they ask. It's good business sense. "We're not against the technology," Frankel told me.
The D.C. taxicab is not moving into the 21st century entirely easy but it's getting there — by free choice, by rider demand, by law, and by brand-new apps and transportation competition. 2012 has already revealed a passion to make these technological leaps as fast as possible. Expect to see the enthusiasm fully on display during the Jan. 30 D.C. Council taxi hearing and beyond, especially as this legal confusion surrounding Uber continues. Taxi Magic, for its part, sees an industry and city that's "incredibly receptive."
"That's all the power of mobility," Carrington remarked.