Modernization Begins for D.C. Taxicabs

Barrington M. Salmon | 7/11/2012, 12:34 p.m.

"I have been a taxi driver for seven years and I already have that system in my car," said Negede Abebe after the press conference. "We're not against technology but why is the government controlling this information in real time? What we're opposing is the 'Big Brother' aspect where they monitor my passenger and me," he said.

Abebe was referring to one of the system's new features - a tracking and monitoring device which will be activated whenever the cabbie picks up a new fare.

"They should let that information be stored and monitored by taxi companies and if the city needs that information for legislative purposes, for example, then the taxi companies could provide it."

He said he fears that this feature might drive customers away to other modes of transportation.

One of his compatriots agreed.

"It is an invasion of privacy," said Haimanot Bizuayehu. "Passengers know their movements are being tracked and that their credit card information is kept and can be monitored. My number one concern is scaring customers away ... And I don't know why the city forced us to go with one vendor. Our costs may have been lower if we were allowed to shop around."

Bizuayehu, who has been driving a cab for 17 years, said the city's executive branch has moved ahead of the legislative branch, in effect, putting the cart before the horse. He also said he believes maintenance issues surrounding repair of the meters will be a nightmare.

"We can go to a shop now and get a meter fixed but how many shops will VeriFone have?" he asked.

Gray said he would never have agreed to a hodgepodge of companies installing the meters because that would have been chaotic and unproductive.

"To have people shopping around, waiting, and maybe not installing the meters at all would have been a mess," he said. "At the end of the day, I'm comfortable with this process."

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh said she was pleased with the latest developments.

"D.C. taxis and taxi drivers are our public face to millions of visitors every year," said Cheh, chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation, in an earlier interview. "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."

She introduced the legislation that is the basis of the modernization effort. Their desire, she has said, besides modernizing the District's taxicab fleet, is to improve safety standards, create a more robust regulatory structure for taxicabs and install card readers in every cab so that riders can pay fares using credit or debit cards.

Cheh and Gray described the smart meters as one of several steps to effect much-needed change in the industry. This includes restructuring the fare systems of cabs in the District, while addressing the varied concerns of passengers, taxi drivers and the city's hospitality industry.