D.C. Taxicab Drivers Warily Eye Modernization

Barrington M. Salmon | , WI Staff Writer | 2/29/2012, 8:49 p.m.

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."