During an hours-long public hearing on modernization of the District's taxicab industry in January, the D.C. Council chamber was full to overflowing with those having an interest and others with a vested interest in the outcome.
The Jan. 30 hearing brought together anxious looking, stone-faced taxi drivers, representatives of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, members of the hotel and restaurant industries and constituents.
D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works, and Transportation, who introduced the legislation in December 2011, chaired the hearing. She, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton said they seek to modernize the District's taxicab fleet, improve safety standards, create a more robust regulatory structure for taxicabs and implement the installation of card readers in every cab so that riders can pay fares by credit or debit card.
The legislation, Cheh said, will complement the Taxicab Commission's decision to restructure the fare system for cabs in the District, while addressing the concerns of passengers, taxi drivers and the city's hospitality industry.
"D.C. taxis and taxi drivers are our public face to millions of visitors each year," Cheh said. "They are often the first impression people have of our city and its services. We want that service to be courteous, efficient and safe, while allowing drivers to earn a proper income and take pride in their work. All of these goals, as well as many of the amenities our residents have requested for some time now, will be served by the legislation."
But for drivers like John De Freitas, these proposed measures amount to nothing more than an attempt by city officials and the Taxicab Commission to drive out independent drivers like himself. De Freitas, 70, who has spent 40 years in the industry as a sole proprietor, said no thanks is given, and no real effort made, to keep drivers like him in the industry who have spent so much of their time providing excellent service to visitors.
Complicating any modernization effort is the feeling in many quarters of the taxicab community that drivers are isolated and excluded from the decision-making that is taking place, and they desire a greater hand in determining the schedule to upgrade their industry.
The latest attempts at modernization made known at the hearing, and through a series of meetings with the Taxicab Commission officials, has served notice to cabbies that widespread change is in the offing.
"We're on the way to mandating credit cards, uniform lights, and a color, probably red and white," said Cheh in a recent interview. "More immediate reforms are needed. I didn't want to move around the chairs. In a year, I will revisit it."
Cheh said there needs to be greater training requirements for cab drivers, adding that she continues to be open to suggestions. But many cab drivers including De Freitas remain dubious.
"Reform isn't about reform, it is about bringing in corporations to replace sole proprietors," said De Freitas, who emigrated from the Caribbean in the 1960s. "Reform is a cover to get sole proprietors and foreigners out. If the Taxicab Commission was thinking about the industry, they should have commissioned a study."
De Freitas said asking each of the 7,000 cab drivers for one dollar could pay for the study. Furthermore, he added, "it makes no economic sense to buy new cars after five years. The best way to determine if a cab should be changed is a combination of years and mileage, and motor vehicle inspectors should be part of that decision."
Over the years, De Freitas said, he has seen the industry and his business go through a mind-numbing number of iterations. He supports change of a different type.
"Of the five people on the Commission, none are current drivers or people to do with taxicabs," he explained. "We should form our own taxicab commission and get petitions. If you look at the proposal, it's all about the taxis and not the drivers."
Linton estimates that there are 2,405 owner-operated vehicles, and 8,500 individuals who are licensed to drive taxis. He adds that there are 116 "so-called" companies, associations, fleets and others who have their own cabs. Without computerization, the Commission is unable to determine more specific information about the number of cabbies who drive their own vehicles and related information. He said sometimes he's not sure the drivers know what's at stake.
"I'm surprised every day and some things have disturbed me," he said, citing complaints from women passengers about alleged mistreatment by drivers. "There is a segment of the driving industry that has little or no regard for rules and regulations. I'm also concerned about gypsy drivers and the way drivers dress."
Linton reiterated his desire to improve the industry by helping find a middle ground between the concerns and desires of drivers, city officials and the public.
"Drivers want a fare increase but there's a quid pro quo." The mayor made this clear: "There has to be an equal increase in the quality of service. That is high-quality service through rules and regulations," he said. "We have to go to a cash-free system, modernize the fleet, and offer clean vehicles. The drivers have to look at it as a business."
"The cab industry is a quarter-of-a-billion dollar industry in D.C. It is the face of the hospitality industry. The industry is the largest non-governmental entity. It's a lot of people's first impression of the city. They will determine whether people will come to conferences and meetings."
Barbara Lang agreed. "It's the impression you make. Cab drivers are the first point for business leaders and tourists," said Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "You want the first impression to be a positive one. I take cabs everyday because I drive my car into the office every morning and usually use cabs to get around. Some know what they're doing, some are rude, and some don't really know the city well. I have to give them directions, which is easy to do. If I don't know where I'm going, that's harder to do."
Lang said she thinks it is a move in the right direction to modernize but offered a caveat.
"We agree with the rate increase if it comes with better delivery of services, upkeep, and the drivers knowing the city, and they have to be trained properly," she said. "Cabbies all want the rate increase without making the improvements."
To which De Freitas argues that he and a number of his peers believe taxi driver training and other improvement of services should be done before issuing anyone a taxi license. "But the city seems more intent on securing revenue so it issues the licenses to make money," he said.
"When corporations replace the sole proprietors, the corporations will provide new vehicles at high rental costs to most drivers, but the service would not be any better," De Freitas asserted.
While he supports some of the proposals put forward, De Freitas questions the timing of the proposals.
"There are numerous cabs which are driving empty. People are not coming for whatever reason but we are kept afloat by people coming in from out of town," he said. "A feasibility study will tell you that this is not the right time. We have to wait until the economy improves. Everyone is waiting until [the] November [elections]."