- Credit card? (Photo: flickr/daqeullamanera)
Two big issues loom for the District of Columbia taxicab industry — first, the citywide modernization effort touted by Mayor Vince Gray and the Council, in which the cabs will feature credit card readers and higher standards; and second, the legality of luxury car service Uber, launched in December and walking the fine line between a cab and limo service. D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton hasn't forgotten either one.
But the long-struggling D.C. Taxicab Commission disappeared from the news in the last month or so. If you ask Linton, he'll say that perhaps it's because he was out of the office for a few weeks. Last month Linton had hip surgery and is only now returning to the office. Apparently the media cools off when he's not there, he noted with humor. Now he's back, and the two issues soon will be, too.
The last big showdown was Linton's Jan. 30 hearing with the D.C. Council. Linton's office released an 89-page request for proposals in late January in search of a vendor to provide a Taxicab Smart Meter System, which would allow for the GPS and the backseat screens and the credit card capabilities that the city government hopes to bring to the industry. But should D.C. set standards and allow individual drivers and companies to meet that or establish and install one technology the Commission arranged? Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh questioned the prescriptive model and Cheh suggested the RFP was getting "ahead of the Council" in the efforts to modernize the industry.
"I've been challenged," Linton admitted this week. "The questions have been raised."
Well, the RFP remains — and in fact, the deadline has been extended from March 12 to March 26.
"Our best analysis tells us it's in the best interest for the customer to provide, maintain, and oversee the system," Linton told me this week. "We're not asking for a single means of doing this."
The incoming bids, he added, will determine the means. The funds will come from a surcharge to taxi riders, estimated at about 50 cents a ride. The RFP deadline was extended thanks to a request from a potential vendor, a promising sign in the overall process. Linton reiterated that "there's nothing in the request that requires new science"; the complication comes from creating a new interface that combines the desired technological amenities. He favors the city's hand in the system because he's "not convinced" that drivers will do the job to their satisfaction and voices concern about the thousands of dollars they would incur in trying to install their own systems.
- (Photo: Uber)
And what's up with Uber these days? Linton confirms that the Taxicab Commission met with Uber representatives in mid-February though he missed the meeting himself due to his surgery. The Commission called Uber "illegal" in January and held a sting operation against an Uber driver. The February meeting, as Linton tells it, involved not so much dialogue as a list of demands that Uber must comply with, including Commission approval of handhelds, knowledge of how they're calibrated, the ability to inspect them twice a year, and license verification for Uber's drivers. He affirms that his office issued a cease and desist order to Uber.
"We're not against what they want to do," Linton said, "but we have to ensure that the customer is protected."
Linton hopes to find Uber's response to their demands when he returns to the office on March 19. Uber has defended its legality in the press, with fans, and in a Jan. 25 legal memo from Reed Smith. Uber declined to comment on February's meeting or their intentions (or lack thereof) to comply with the Commission, instead issuing a statement about Uber's benefits to D.C. and popularity, as "residents love the convenience of being able to arrange for transportation with the push of a button." Uber acknowledges the ongoing conversation: "Our discussions with the DCTC continue with our goals of encouraging technology innovation in the District and putting the good of the citizens of the District first," Uber D.C. General Manager Rachel Holt wrote in the statement.
Linton's real complaint is how Uber had claimed its representatives had met with the Commission before its launch, which he denies happened.
"The one thing I had resented," Linton remarked, "was their lying."
Linton alluded to bigger projects on the horizon as well. In the past, he mentioned the possibility of contracting with WMATA and the D.C. public schools to provide hundreds of wheelchair-accessible taxicabs in 2012. The study of how such contracts might be managed is nearly complete, he told me, and the Commission hopes to make some bigger moves in the near future. We may well know more by Wednesday, March 28, when Linton next goes before the D.C. Council.
He disputes the notion, by the way, that he and any councilmembers are at odds about how to modernize the D.C. taxicab industry. Did Linton really get ahead of anyone by issuing an RFP? The chairman again emphasized he did what he was empowered to do ... any details of the surcharge, however, will come only in time with the Council's decisions, he clarified. We'll see.