Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Unhappiness abounds as D.C. taxis raise fares and face modernization

May 2, 2012 - 10:45 AM
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(Photo: Mary Cheh)

D.C. residents may not be thrilled with the fare increases slowly taking effect throughout the District's taxicab drivers but neither are the drivers — the 8,250 local taxi drivers are growing increasingly frustrated with both how the modernization initiatives are unfolding and the fight to make a living.

"We are asking them to abide by the law, to be fair," said Haimanot Bizuayehu of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers.

Bizuayehu told me that driver income has fallen by around a third over the last four years. He questions whether the new fares will even help. The per-mile taxicab rate may have risen from $1.50 to $2.16, he says, but the way the Commission shifted other fees creates a situation where drivers will still fight to earn a living. The D.C. Taxicab Commission acknowledges a drop in driver income of at least 20-30% in income from the conversion from a zoned to metered system in recent years.

Meanwhile, the frustration of passengers was dramatically captured in an April 23 Post column from Petula Dvorak, who echoed the criticism that D.C. taxicabs are "third-class rides in a world-class city":

Uncertain pay rates, rude drivers dodging through traffic with lots of dubious twists and turns, the drone of an incessant phone conversation that you’re not part of, the smells of a pungent lunch filling the hot cab.

The really great part? This exotic, D.C. adventure will cost even more this week.

Recent reports of escalating violence alleged between drivers and passengers have also caused concern, although the association points to a lack of details or evidence on the incidents.

The Small Business Association has publicly denounced Dvorak's characterization as "inaccurate" and "inappropriate" and say its members were "distraught" to read her piece. "Despite Mrs. Dvorak's representation of the new rate adjustment as a 'fare increase,' it is far from clear that drivers will benefit," the Small Business Association stated. "As drivers earn much of their income through extra-passenger fees, the SBA has asked that a credible, third-party rate study be conducted before any major changes." Another driver loudly blasted Dvorak's remarks on his blog Diary of a Mad D.C. Cabbie and questions how much the hike amounts to for drivers: "Petula, you are a typical ignorant douchebag ... if you throw in the fare slash of 2008 and the extra charges that they have taken away now, the fare increase comes up to a whopping .08% per year since 2008!"

The association also reiterates its objection to the D.C. Taxicab Commission mandating one vendor to modernize taxis with credit card readers rather than instead allowing free choice for the drivers. In the past, Commission Chairman Ron Linton has defended the selection of one vendor as a way to save drivers the acquisition and installation costs. Passengers will eventually be charged an extra 50 cents a ride to help pay for the more convenient technology.

Chocolate strawberries
Calibrated taxi mark. (Photo: DCTC)

"Why are they forcing us to go to one particular vendor?" Bizuayehu asked me. The drivers also have concerns that the proposed technology is "unconstitutional" and "violates our privacy" and that of the passenger due to the tracking tech involved. And with the extra charges, they wonder how many will decide to simply ride less.

Last month, representatives of the Small Business Association met with D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, head of the transportation committee, to raise their concerns. Bizuayehu remains hopeful. D.C. taxi drivers have complained that officials don't include them in the decision-making process in the past.

Taxi fare meters should be fully recalibrated by mid-May and will be required to shift by May 31, the Commission now states, after first raising the fares on April 21. When April concluded, the Commission estimated that about a third of the city's cabs featured the new meter rates. You can recognize the properly calibrated taxis by the certified red decals, as featured above, and opposed to the old blue ones. Mayor Vince Gray has vocally stated his intentions to modernize the city's taxicabs by the end of 2012, as Commission Chairman Linton continues to finalize the tech necessary to add panic buttons, smart meters, and better driver training. The Commission's annual operating budget comes to about $1.8 million.

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