Back our hacks!

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I’m bummed that, sometime by the end of this decade, all DC cabs will be red.  I suppose the tarty sheen will make the city’s wheezing fleet of 7,000 90s-era Crown Vics easier to spot among tourists and other out-of-towners – and perhaps inspire an end-times showdown with their slick-dick competitors, Uber, over a giant checkerboard in Dupont Circle – but this is one reform that I could do without.

But don’t lump me among nostalgia-prone pensioners just because I’m wary of this change.  When the City Council and Taxicab Commission mandated meters, I was all for it.  In fact, I rejoiced!  Adios, zone-driven mystery fares (and the all-too-frequent spats that went along with them).  Toodle-loo to the strange incentive to ditch my cab a block short of Florida Avenue just to save a couple of bucks.  That was so Anthony Williams!  Now a digital screen dispassionately displays my fare as time and distance command, with calibration approved by the taxi overlords downtown!  A big win for consumers and, incidentally, one of the few Fleet Feet Fenty achievements that Vincent Gray didn’t dis as a sop to gentrifiers during his 2010 mayoral campaign.

Next came the push to add a four-in-one meter/credit card reader/GPS/TV to every cab and, again, no complaints here.  (The roll-out, in case you’ve missed it, has been hung up in a procurement fight: the losing vendors, as ever, believe the evaluation and award processes were unfair.  And if what people are saying about Jim Graham is true, maybe those losers have a point.  This is a $35 million, five-year deal – not exactly pocket lint.)  These “smart meters” are a win-win: consumers get more flexibility, payment-wise, and drivers will receive bigger tips due to a flaw in human psychology.  The only grumbling I’ve heard is from a handful of disaffected hacks.  They say that the new technology, and other city-stipulated modernizations – such as handicap accessibility – will cost operators over $4,000 per car.  (I’m not sure how they arrive at this figure, but it’s far above the ~$200 that the Taxicab Commission will charge for smart meter installation.)

So why do I object to the city-mandated paint job? I believe it’s part of a creeping effort to wipe out DC’s charming, if not always lovable, crew of independent operators in the name of a uniform, customer-friendly “experience.”  And although the Taxicab Commission will impose a 50-cent surcharge on every fare to pay for the smart meter equipment upgrade, whenever that happens, it seems that drivers or their corporate masters will have to cough up the entire cost for this new color scheme.  Sure, they’ll have until 2018 to make the switch and will probably need a new coat of paint between now and then anyway.  But this is a regulation in search of a constituency.  Only four members of the public bothered to attend the civic meeting to discuss this matter.

I don’t know about you, but I can find a cab easily enough – I just look for the little white domes that say “TAXI” atop so-appointed vehicles for hire.

Here’s what I fear is coming next: a requirement that all cars be of the same make/model.  (This on top of the new-ish rule that all cars must be under five years old.  The cabs get inspected every six months, people. Chill…)  It’s at this point – if we ever reach it – that the additional expense of acquiring and maintaining a “taxi-worthy” car may exceed an independent driver’s ability to pay himself a decent salary.  As of 2011, that average was around Nissan-NYC_Taxi$32,000 per annum, which is not only faaaaaaaar below the metro area’s median household income of $80K+ but also less than the national median of about $50,000.  So already, drivers aren’t rolling in it.  But if a forced transition to some “Taxi of Tomorrow” comes to pass – a la NYC – I see a two-part outcome.  First, there will be a significant decline in the number of owner/operators working in the District (which now number in the hundreds), followed by an influx of fleet operators with the wherewithal to meet the city’s pricy regulations.

There are already 116 “big” companies – Diamond, “Yellow” Cab – around town (with fleets of 20+ cars), but what if there were only big companies?  Is that the type of city we want to live in?  I’m sure that, in this nightmare (!) of my imagination, a large number of displaced hacks would find work with the b8-31-11-NYC-Taxi-Medallion-piculked up Diamonds of the world, but their wages would plummet, at least if NYC is any guide.  In Manhattan, where corporate fleets dominate and the city restricts market access through its medallion system – yet another “reform” that may someday hit DC – the average driver makes around $25,000 per year if he doesn’t own his car, or about half what a driver/operator might earn.  How could this outcome be any different in our nation’s capital?

High earners expect premium experiences and will pay for it – Uber’s quick rise is a case in point.  So some will argue that the city’s mandates, although costly, simply reflect changing consumer tastes.  If independent cabbies don’t get with the times, they’ll simply disappear.  But in an era of declining middle class security, I don’t think we should intentionally limit access – and the financial upside, such as it is – to a livelihood that has sustained thousands of local workers for decades.  Perhaps a smart exemption regime can preserve these small-time entrepreneurs before The Man does what he does best – smite the puny.

Let’s remember what New Yorkers are always far too happy to remind us: DC is NOT New York.  They can have their taxicabs.  And we can have ours.

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About Derek Hills

DEREK HILLS is a storyteller and playwright from Washington, DC. He performs regularly on the Story District/SpeakeasyDC and Story League stages, as well as Better Said Than Done, and has appeared in "Ambien Date Night," “e-Geaux (beta)," and his solo show "No Sex, Please" at the Capital Fringe Festival. His new one-act comedy, "Prison Break," is debuting at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival in July.
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