City Desk

Cab Drivers: An Unhappy Bunch

About three hours into today’s D.C. Council hearing over two taxicab laws—the modernization act, and a bill that would add wheelchair-accessible cabs to the fleet—it occurred to me that the reason drivers are seen as such a powerful bloc is because they share one interest: Being the underdogs.

Whether it’s by the councilmembers, the hotel association, passengers, or the taxicab commission, drivers feel put upon.

Everyone, it seems, has done the drivers wrong: There are too many cars on the streets. License fees are too high. Customers have a chip on their shoulders. The hack inspectors are assholes. Get rid of the Taxicab Commission and bring on more hack inspectors! Testimony from a pro-medallion system advocate was met with muttering: "Go back to Chicago!" The list goes on. (And on: More than 80 people signed up to testify at the hearing. As of mid-afternoon, Chairman Mary Cheh hadn't even called the first quarter of the witnesses.)

In the hearing, the drivers are a vocal bunch. Scores of them line the walls, bursting out with frustration frequently enough for Councilmartyr St. Tommy Wells to shush them thus: “If the room is quiet, we won’t notice it’s over capacity.”

Wells was asking them to stop praising him; during his questioning of Taxicab Commission Chair Ron Linton, he was a recipient of cheers as he bore into the reasons why Linton wants to pay for the new meter, GPS, and credit card system with money from a customer surcharge. Not that the drivers want to pay for it themselves, mind you—they simply cheered any criticism of the plan because they want it dead.

And they're still unhappy about the end of the zone system. During testimony, drivers went after Wells for praising the Uber model of cab dispatch—one 30-year veteran said the abolished zone system allowed for higher fares (better for drivers, and thus, service) through shared riding. In response to a complaint from Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser that her constituents can't catch cabs right now, the zone system was brought up again: a driver insisted that picking up multiple fares was the best way to hit underserved areas.

Wells acknowledged this, wondering if allowing shared rides east of the Anacostia River at night would help residents there catch cabs home. Only if shared rides were allowed everywhere, the driver said: "If you're going to have it east of the river, you need it west of the park."

And on it went, with each driver bringing up a different gripe. With such scattershot complaints—and, likely, diversity of opinion among drivers—it's hard to evaluate their claims. But the anger is obvious, and to listen to the cabbies, everyone else is to blame.

Photo by Shani O. Hilton

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  • RT

    No, it's because they're all assholes bringing a entitles mentality to what should be (and is in any other city) a public transportation role. They've operated outside the law and common sense for so long, that they're used to it... and outraged by any attempt to bring some rationale regulation to the corrupt, banana republic industry. (They despised Leon Swain, in part because he brought light to the corruption... and had only scratched the surface)

  • …done

    I hate sharing a cab. It takes longer (we're not always going to the same direction) and costs more.

  • Typical DC BS

    Cabbies bring up some good points, but they fail to realize the ones driving 15 year old cars that are dirty, uncomfortable and have drivers with attitude only hurt their image and need to be taken off the streets.

    Like any other business in the city that deals with the public constantly, they need to be properly licensed and made to adhere to minimum standards. The cabbies own "minimum standards" are the reason they have such poor reputations with their customers.

  • Keith

    As a young black man who lived East of the Anacostia: SCREW DC CABBIES

  • Shani Hilton

    @Typical: I think there is a real resistance to standardization, but it seems to be for resistance's sake. And they seem genuinely mistrustful of just about everyone.

  • Mr T in DC

    I wish the DC Council would give equal time to taxi customers as well as the drivers! The cabs in this town are the biggest bunch of old, unsafe jalopies in any major American city, and bringing then under tighter regulation (uniform color, central dispatch, minimum age, etc) will be a welcome start.

  • S

    No sympathy here.

    A significant proportion of the cabdrivers I've encountered in DC, as a passenger, a pedestrian, and a driver, have been utterly terrible drivers. Some are reckless (especially when it comes to stopping at stop signs and paying attention to pedestrians in crosswalks) while others drive slowly across two lanes, apparently oblivious to or uncaring about the existence of other cars on the road. Many of them also don't appear to know how to navigate the city very well, which would be more understandable were it not based on a grid.

  • Daniel Wolkoff

    The DC govt. has been destroying the taxi industry since Marion Barry wanted to force all the drivers to get fancy new cars. Fenty, who never knew anything he didn't want to force change on, eliminated the zone system. The zone system was fine, DC taxis were famous for courteous, friendly service at a very low cost, and they could carry multiple passengers, very environmentally smart and easier to get picked up.. Fenty couldn't leave anything alone, he said taxi drivers were abusing the zone system when an occasional unaware tourist was overcharged. Of course a competent Taxi commission with plain clothed inspectors, and real enforcement, takes care of that issue in a NORMAL city. Now Mayor Gray also can't leave anything alone and wants to force expensive medallions on the industry, handing over the whole business to big companies that can afford it, and screwing all the small operators. These are all rich govt. officials who like a sexual predator,,can't help themselves from screwing anyone they can. Rich busy bodies who wouldn't know what it is like to work your ass off 12 to 14 hours a day, send money back to the extended family in Pakistan and Nigeria, while struggling to make a living here in DC. The new "system" makes multiple fares impossible , so it is so wasteful and you cannot get a cab to stop as they all go by with one passenger. Even the only council memeber with a brain, Mary Cheh cannot sleep through the night if she doesn't stick her face into the lives of the taxi driver, she wakes up in the middle of the night in a sweat and worries" the cabs need to be painted the same color!". Why? Who cares??
    Emporer Brat Fenty destroyed our streets with his thousands of miserably timed traffic lights, insipid stop signs and endless streetscape idiocy, annoying speed humps, congesting the entire city. It is a living nightmare to drive around this pig stye of a pathetic town thanks to these idiots in office, so
    now they are destroying the taxis too.
    The DC govt. needs to be put out of its misery as soon as possible, we must absolutely dump the city council entirely, we need to form a constituent assembly now. get rid of this council before it kills again!!!. These inbred hacks are an embarrasment, they suck money out of everything they can, only to waste it down the toilet like crazy. The DC city council has destroyed our city ,,get rid of them all. Painting the taxis the same color is the stupedest thing ever. One homogenmized city delivered to the biggest corporations by the worst city govt. ever. Paint these hacks on the city council GONE!
    by Dan in Brookland on Jan 17, 2012 3:17 am

  • Kielhwl

    Just have to respond to Michael's comment about DC cabs being " DC taxis were famous for courteous, friendly service at a very low cost, and they could carry multiple passengers, very environmentally smart and easier to get picked up.." Not sure what planet he's operating from, but I've rarely seen courteous and/or friendly cab drivers. DC cabs smell, drivers rarely know how to get anywhere (at least if you are a native you can direct them - sort of since very few speak English, very un-dependable - try scheduling a pick-up to get to any of the airports in the AM. Not sure where to start on the "environmentally smart" part of it!

  • Ward 6 Resident

    If you can't speak or understand English, if you don't believe in personal hygiene, if you allow garbage including empty beer cans to accumulate in your car, if you don't know your way around the city, if you are over seventy and can barely see, if you only want fares that go west of the park, if your car is ancient and the AC doesn't work, then you are qualified under the current system to be a DC cab driver.

  • WDC

    " DC taxis were famous for courteous, friendly service at a very low cost, and they could carry multiple passengers, very environmentally smart and easier to get picked up.. "

    The hell they were. They were notorious for overshooting destination to hit new zones, for refusing pick-ups, for taking circuitous routes, and for screaming and threatening passengers who knew enough to argue. The 'occasional unaware tourist' is the only person to ever come though DC who hasn't realized that DC Taxi drivers are the worst in the country.