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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