July 28, 2011 at 3:22 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Taxicab Confusions: inferior service, regulatory chaos

LGBT taxicab customers in Washington represent both a “cherished clientele” and “the No. 1 fare category and customer demographic,” says Larry Frankel, head of both the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers and the industry advocacy group Justice for D.C. Taxis.

Frankel, a gay long-time D.C. taxi driver operating under the moniker “Taxi By Larry,” admits that this doesn’t always appear to be the case. Although the well-known cabbie and high-profile taxi driver advocate has long made serving late-night gay, lesbian, and transgender nightlife and hospitality patrons and employees a priority, he readily acknowledges that — while not commonplace — community members are occasionally subjected to inappropriate treatment or ridicule by a distinct minority of drivers.

Frankel characterizes these often-unpublicized occurrences as “disturbing and isolated” incidents not representative of overall driver attitudes. But periodic media reports and the personal tales of those on the receiving end of such prejudice spread far and fast within the community’s social network.

These instances are, however, only a small measure of the contentious and complex issues continuing to roil — and divide — the fractious taxi industry and swirling around chaotic city government regulatory oversight. None of which well serves a hospitality and tourism dependent national capital.

Unbeknownst to many, D.C. cabbies are independent contractors operating under one of a number of large and small taxi companies. This driver scheme tends to result in a “renegade” environment and an unpredictable rider experience.

Inconsistent efforts by the District to improve customer service standards and enforce regulations are often met with opposition and lingering resentment by the approximately 9,000-plus licensed hackers (not even the city knows how many active licenses are in use). Meanwhile, consumer dissatisfaction with the quality of service festers in the backseat of many a local cab.

It doesn’t help matters that the D.C. Taxicab Commission has been allowed to devolve into a dysfunctional agency worthy of parody by any cable comedy show. An interim chair bouncing around in multiple seats in order to declare a required quorum with no other commissioners present and the forceful removal of media from a recent commission hearing only lend a carnival-like atmosphere to proceedings.

Drivers and riders alike are dismayed, albeit for different reasons.

Most drivers, having abandoned their losing opposition to the meter system mandated by former Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2008 and welcomed by most of the public, complain that the fares now based on time-and-distance result in less income requiring longer shifts and are set too low. However, fares for cross-town trips remain essentially unchanged and the cost of short hauls are justifiably more equitable – although long-distance one-way trips to destinations outside the city are capped at artificially low levels.

Drivers also complain that enforcement by hack inspectors is overzealous, selective, and unfair — and fines are too high. They worry that pending policies to impose a uniform exterior cab color and maximum age of autos will result in new operating costs too expensive to bear.

Tell that to riders long accustomed to cabs of cramped size, inconsistent age and unpleasant condition, despite improvement in the overall safety and condition of cabs in recent years due to stepped-up inspection efforts. Ask a consumer about the all-too-common lack of (or failure to operate) air-conditioning during the summer, fare gouging, poor knowledge of the area, inability to accept payment via credit and debit cards or even produce a legally required fare machine receipt and be prepared for an exaggerated eye roll.

Above all else, drivers fear that Council consideration of legislation to convert the current accept-all-comers licensing protocol to a significantly downsized number under a “medallion” system found in most other cities is a thinly veiled attempt to “corporatize” the industry. They contend this will lead to control by a small number of well-connected large cab companies able to afford the acquisition of a vast majority of licenses over time — eliminating what has historically been a path to individual entrepreneurship for lower-income and minority entrants.

Riders are unsure what to make of medallions, especially given the fact that there are drivers on both sides of the issue (although most are opposed). Will it lead to higher fares, longer wait times for fewer available cabs, a decline in overall service and more service refusals, as some fear?

In the past few days, evidence surfaced that the campaign of Mayor Vincent Gray allegedly “laundered” cash contributions totaling $56,000 — primarily from taxi drivers and cab company interests. Gray’s campaign is also charged with failing to report “in-kind” contributions of more than 6,000 taxi rides providing voters transportation to polling locations. This, of course, is merely the latest embarrassment for a scandal-plagued local leadership class knee-deep in the muck of official impropriety.

Gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) surrendered his oversight of the industry when formerly chair of the Council’s Public Works and Transportation Committee following an FBI sting of his office that ensnared chief of staff Ted Loza. Loza was sentenced on June 28 to an eight-month federal prison term after being found guilty of accepting cash, trips and other gifts from taxi industry sources.

Although not charged with any wrongdoing, Graham strained credulity among many for not reporting Loza’s passing along a cash-stuffed envelope — which Graham did not pocket — or firing him. The incident has likely resulted in final closure for any aspirations Graham had to seek a citywide at-large Council seat.

The bottom line is that cab drivers have largely lost the public’s support. While once sympathetic to the benefit afforded those pursuing employment as sole proprietors, years of poor service, rude treatment, overcharging, crummy cabs and general disrespect for the customer has resulted in a new reality — no one really cares anymore.

They just want a cab system that works and rides well. Even if they’re not sure whether an attempt to professionalize and standardize service via medallions is the right thing to do or will yield the desired results.

One thing is certain: D.C. taxi drivers have finally wasted the last remnants of good will and support riders are willing to easily offer.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

1 Comment
  • I really like most of the article except for the fact that the District government shapes and controls everthing that happens in taxicab industry, whether poor service or condition of the vehicle. The problem is simple, that the governmental structure from the beginning of home rule has never had a proper regulator or brokered a partnership with those in the taxicab industry whom truly want professional standards instead of just profits. The District doesn’t own a single taxicab but farms this work out to more that eight thousands drivers in the same manner that greedy farmers treat sharecroppers. All interested parties need to join togather to insure that a desired professional standard is set and those who conform will recieve a fair rate of return for their investment.

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