We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
The DC Council waded into the contentious politics of taxi regulation this week, considering new rules to regulate luxury services like Uber. Traditional taxi cab drivers say these new services enjoy an unfair advantage that threatens their livelihoods. Supporters say they provide a valuable service and are bringing change to an old, flawed system. We get the latest.
- Martin Di Caro transportation reporter, WAMU
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, Food Wednesday. It's time to break out the beer steins. We'll explore the culture behind Oktoberfest and the German communities who celebrate it in our region. But first, the legislative fight over luxury sedan service in the District that's getting crazy enough to have its own drinking game. The D.C. council is still trying to figure out how the city should regulate Uber, a driver-for-hire company that offers a service somewhere between taxis and limos.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe company's CEO told lawmakers at a hearing this week that the regulations under consideration would put him and his drivers out of business, but many of the city's taxi drivers say that Uber's been flat out escaping oversight even as it is trying to put them out of business. Joining us to explore where things go from here and what it means for customers who just want to get a ride in the District, is Martin Di Caro. He reports on transportation for WAMU 88.5. Martin, good to see you.
MR. MARTIN DI CAROKojo, good to be back. I actually took a cab across town to get here and I mentioned to the cabbie who I was. He was listening to your show, by the way. And I mentioned to him who I was and what I was going to be doing today. And when I said Uber, he said Uber (makes noise).
NNAMDIAnd he did not put you out of the cab?
NNAMDIYou didn't have to walk all the way over here?
CAROHe did not want to continue the conversation, however.
NNAMDIWell, it's not like Sulaiman Brown showed up again in sunglasses, but the DC council had a rather epic hearing on Monday when members literally spent their entire day talking about how to regulate Uber in a fair way. What are the issues that they're trying to resolve and why has right and regulations for the services Uber offers proven to be such a challenge?
CAROYeah, I was thinking of that very question on that way over here. This is bizarre. You would think this would be a minor issue, regulating a new business operating in the District of Columbia, but it's become confusing. It's become angry. It's become personal, on a certain level. It's just bizarre. The issues at stake are we have a regulated taxicab industry in the District of Columbia. Anyone who's taken a cab is familiar with it and its shortcomings.
CAROAnd the city is working on trying to improve taxi service in the District. Now, we have a pretty much unregulated sedan service operating in the District of Columbia and the regulators at the DCTC, Taxi Cab Commission, want to change that. They want -- in the name of consumer protections and safety -- to regulate Uber and it gets a little tricky. I'll spare you all the inane details. Should Uber be regulated as a sedan service or a taxi service?
CAROWell, they've decided to create a sedan class of vehicle for Uber. And for folks who are wondering, what's Uber, it's not a company with a building where you go and there are a bunch of black sedans waiting with their drivers there. It's an internet startup. You use your Smartphone to order a sedan. It comes and picks you up. Your credit is charged. A receipt is emailed to you. You do not hail an Uber cab on the street.
NNAMDIIs there an Uber app?
CAROYes, there's an Uber app. I’m not sure what the exact name of it is. And it's more expensive. They're base fare is $7, minimum fare 15, charge you 3.25 per mile, 75 cents per minute stopped. So it's, you know, you're gonna be paying double, triple. They also have surge pricing, that when it's extremely busy, say midnight on a Friday and you're getting out of a bar and you order an Uber taxi or an Uber sedan, you might have to pay double the regular fare.
NNAMDIDuring periods of high demand, you may…
CAROThat's high, high demand.
NNAMDI…you may have to pay more.
NNAMDIThe other thing about it, however, is that it seems to be growing in popularity.
CAROThere are a couple of reasons for that. It's a very good service. As I mentioned, Uber is not a company. It partners with sedan companies and that could just be one person who owns a black Town Car and it's, you know, we saw one of those people a couple of days ago testifying. His name is Saud Hummadi (sp?) . He owns a single black Town Car and he complained that some of the regulations would put him out of business. The DC taxicabs, as most people would admit, based on Mary Cheh, the councilmember who chaired that day-long hearing two days ago.
CAROShe put a survey up on her website earlier this year, asking the public -- it wasn't really scientific -- but asking the public's feedback about what's wrong with the taxicab system. They're dirty, they're not always so dependable, sometimes the drivers are rude. I've had instances -- I take cabs a lot. I've had drivers threaten to kick me out if I asked about lowering the radio. It was 11:00 at night, I asked this guy -- he was blaring some Russian language radio station on the -- he said, if you don't like it, get out.
CAROSo there is a whole laundry list of complaints that people had about the taxi system. No credit card machines, you know, you always have to have cash. They're working on that. So Uber is much, you know, it's cleaner, it's nicer, it's classier, it's more expensive, but folks want that in this town where a lot of people have expense accounts. And if they want to take a limo or black sedan out to the airport or to a club or home at night, they'll order Uber.
NNAMDIPeople do have some complaints about taxicabs, but note to Mary Cheh, if you put up a website asking about anything that is wrong in the District of Columbia, you're going to get a whole lot of responses, maybe…
CAROYeah, the survey was overwhelmingly negative in some key areas when it came to taxicab service in the District. And again, they are working on that. They have a series of legislative proposals that are working their way through the city to improve the taxi system. And one of those is to put credit card machines in the back.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Martin Di Caro. He reports on transportation for WAMU 88.5, about a hearing held in the District this week in attempt to regulate services like Uber. Are you an Uber customer? Why do you prefer that service over regular taxicabs? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you think luxury on-demand car service companies like Uber should be regulated by the same rules as taxicabs? Why or why not? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. When Uber CEO said that the Taxicab Commission's proposed regulations would put him out of business, what are the specific rules he was talking about?
CAROWell, one that Mary Cheh said he was misinterpreting would require a sedan company to have at least 20 drivers certified. So the fellow who I mentioned before, Saud Hummadi, he has one, you know, he's one. He's claiming that a requirement for 20 would put me out of business. Councilmember Cheh said, well, you're reading that wrong. The Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick said no, actually our attorneys have read it and there's wiggle room in there to interpret it that you would basically put 75 percent of the sedan companies in the District of Columbia out of business.
NNAMDIIt does seem a bit confusing. It seems that they're saying you can either own only one or if you don't own only one, then you have to own more than 20 or words to that effect.
CAROYeah, there's no 2 to 19 in there.
CAROTravis Kalanick said it's the most restrictive set of regulations he's seen in any major city in the country where he's operating. Only paint jobs done by the car's manufacturer, prohibition on leasing vehicles, restrictions on makes and models of vehicles, for instance you have to a certain year or more recent. If your car's "too old" you wouldn't be able to use it. A whole slew of proposals. Now, there are a lot of them. He picked out the ones he doesn't like, you know.
NNAMDIWhy is demand pricing that you described earlier so important for Uber's business model?
CAROYou mean the surge pricing?
NNAMDIYes. During periods of high demand the prices go up. I guess they're saying, hey, demand and supply. Don't you understand how it works?
CAROUber's whole argument is the marketplace is regulating them. So whether it's demand pricing or the minimum fare they charge of $15 or the fact that they're exploding in popularity while the city taxicab system is unpopular, their argument is, if the city cabs are better we wouldn't be able to get our foot in the door here. And it is a different service, though. I mean, I wouldn't take an Uber taxi day to day, getting around the city. It is expensive. I mean I just grab a regular cab if I need to get 10 or 15 blocks.
CAROSo I think there are, you know, there are two different markets at work here, but the Taxicab Commission doesn't want to hear that. And cabbies themselves are not happy with Uber 'cause there is the idea out there that eventually Uber will lower its fares. And there was a proposal that was shot down, after some vehement opposition, to create a minimum floor that Uber could not drop below and Uber was dead-set against that.
NNAMDIDid Uber claim any victories out of the hearing at all on Monday? What sense did you get for where lawmakers were at the end of all of this?
CAROI think everyone was exhausted, actually. No. The proposals are just that, they're proposals. Councilmember Cheh sought to strike a conciliatory tone. She said we're not fighting you. We want you here, she said.
NNAMDIUber CEO said yes, we're fighting.
CAROHe said if you're telling me how to do my business, you're fighting us. And at that point Councilmember Cheh had lost her patience with him and she moved on to Councilmember Bowser so she can begin her questioning. So no, there were no victories about this. It's still up in the air and I can't blame people for being confused about this. What's so hard about regulating something that will be good for the city, more convenient for people? There's another service out there called Hailo, which would not replace D.C.'s taxi system. It would allow -- Kojo, you're on the corner after work today.
CAROYou can't seem to find a cab. Hailo's not up and running in D.C. yet, but if it were…
NNAMDIIt is in England.
CAROYes. And there was somebody from England testifying at that hearing over Skype.
CAROYes. You would go to your Smartphone, you would see a map, you would see where the cabs are, you would order a cab, that cab would come get you, a D.C. cab. So you wouldn't be, you know, supplanting the existing system, you would just be using a conduit. Hailo would be a middle man and you would be able to get a cab to come to you because that cab is, say, three or four blocks away. They're finishing with somebody. They come and pick you up next.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones now. We go to Ralph, in Washington, D.C. Ralph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RALPHA couple good points, you know, first of all, when they raised the cab fare they promised us -- and I remember this distinctly -- that we were gonna get some new cabs and we were gonna get better services and everything else. You know, the council has exactly no will to stand up to a very vocal taxicab union. They can't do it. First, you know, we should have -- because of pollution, we should be using natural gas cabs, like they do in many cities around the world, but they won't go that way.
RALPHWe should take cars off the street after three years because they put 80,000 to 100,000 miles on those cars every year. We should be mandating newer cars, you know. If you can't buy a new car, then don't drive the car and that will eliminate a lot of competition. We got junkers out there with 500,000 miles on them. And we should be using either natural gas cars or we should be using hybrids and reducing the pollution and reducing the stress on the citizens of this city.
NNAMDIRalph, Martin Di Caro and others know how difficult it was for the fight to move from the zone system to the meter system in cars. And now they're talking about the process of implementing credit card swipes in taxicabs. And that apparently is not going to be rolled out as quickly as we thought it was.
CAROThere was a delay in some of the proposals that were supposed to be in effect already. The hybrids are on Ron Linton -- who is the Taxicab Commissioner, that's on his radar. First things first, they need to get the existing system modernized. You know I've been in many a cab, I don't mind some of the filth and disorganization and the fact that maybe the cabbie looks like it's his eighth or tenth day straight on the road, 'cause they don't make a lot of money. So, you know, they're trying to feed their families themselves. But a lot of people don't like it.
CAROAnd the city is -- even though it hasn’t gone too well -- they are trying to improve the service. But the caller made some excellent points. We're still way behind some other cities that are modernizing faster.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Ralph. We move onto Michele in Washington, D.C. Michele, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHELEThank you, Kojo. I wanna make my point in the perspective of the taxicab drivers themselves.
MICHELEWe are living in a city that has the highest per capita ratio of taxicabs to the world.
MICHELEMind you. And they are approaching thousands of black cars, which are not regulated, which can fluctuate the price up and down as the demand exists. This is something, I mean (unintelligible) was a taxicab driver in the (word?). Uber has to be regulated. It is not even (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOkay. You're not coming through very clearly, Michele, but what did come through is that you seem to be saying one, that this city is already over taxicabbed, we have more taxicabs per capita. Did that come up at all in the hearing?
CARONo. He did say Uber has to be regulated.
CAROThat is going to happen, how remains to be seen. This is going to keep playing itself out pretty quickly actually. So we'll see how this develops and what the final product looks like and I don't know, you know, of course we live in a litigious society. How Uber is going to like what the final product looks like, so we'll see what happens there.
CAROBut he did have his attorney at the hearing and he's pretty adamant about wanting to resist almost anything the city, as far as that list that he gave. I mean, there's a lot of regulations there but, you know, those five or six points that he's adamantly against. Even Council member Mary Cheh admitted that some of them may not make a lot of sense but it's, they're just proposals.
NNAMDIMichael, thank you for your call. Here's Aaron, in Washington D.C. Aaron, you're on the air, go ahead please.
AARONHi, Kojo, longtime listener, first time caller. I really appreciate your show. In terms of Uber I really wanted to say that, I mean, honestly it's a nicer car as it's been mentioned obviously. But if you're going on a date from a club or something you don't want to get in a taxicab that has as many miles, maybe a smoking car, may smell bad. And Uber's nice, nicer way and like has been mentioned it's not something that you would take everywhere.
AARONAnd my second point, often times taxicabs you have to fight with them to go to specific locations. There's some clubs that are out of the way, some places that I would to go that aren't as accessible to the daily commute because taxicabs get the most fare for their commute. So if Uber, they will often take me to anywhere I want to go without a complaint. The taxicabs are trying to make the best bang for their buck. So that's one of the downsides of D.C. taxicabs that I've noticed. I mean...
NNAMDIWell, I guess, I guess others like you, Aaron, would want to make sure that Uber maintains that level of service and that's one of the reasons that I think the council feels the need to regulate because if one day Aaron called for, or used his Smartphone to get an Uber sedan, an Uber limo and it was all shoddy and not, Uber would argue, hey the marketplace will take care of that, they just won't order it anymore.
CAROYes, Uber is not charging people a rate they don't agree to and that's their argument. The marketplace is working, it's a contract between a driver, a passenger and Uber, why should the city stick its hands into that. Well, Mary Cheh and others have made points, well, there have been complaints about gouging or maybe it wasn't clear enough when the surge pricing was going to be in effect.
CAROPeople have complained that all of a sudden they're stuck with a $50.00, you know, they get a receipt for $50.00, they didn't know. I think for the most part though, Uber has found a demand for its service because of the lack of good service that people have admitted in, you know, Mary Cheh's survey, lack of good service by the city's taxicabs.
NNAMDIOnto Moses in Washington D.C. for a complaint that you hear from, I guess, quite a few cabdrivers. Moses, your turn.
MOSESAll right. Thanks Kojo, how are you doing today?
NNAMDII'm doing well.
MOSESGood. Kojo, my main goal here was that Uber's -- Uber is not just a regular Uber as its known to be like you would call it from certain building office and it would pick you up and take you there. But late at night, I see them, because I'm a cabdriver too, I see them at night hustling and buggling the same fares we take when people flag us. See them rushing and taking our customers as well. And no wonder...
NNAMDIThat has been a complaint that was made by limo, about limo drivers in general in the past. How do you know that the limo drivers you're seeing are related to Uber, Moses?
MOSESBecause some of these Ubers, I know them in person.
NNAMDIHe has a name for them, these Ubers.
CAROThey're not allowed street hails. It has to be prearranged and, you know, I myself have been walking home late at night and a limo will pull up next to me and ask do I want a ride. There's no meter, we agree, he takes me home.
NNAMDIAnd you have no idea of knowing whether that limo is associated with Uber or not?
CAROWell, technically he's not supposed to do that and there are also restrictions on if the cab is coming from Virginia or Maryland where they can pick up and not pick up. There's a lot to this that the average customer doesn't want to deal with, they just want to get to where they're going.
NNAMDIAnd, Moses, I guess if you see incidents of that you write down the license plate and report it and I'm afraid that that's all the time we have. Moses, thank you very much for your call. Martin Di Caro, this is an issue we'll be continuing to follow. Thank you very much for joining us.
CAROAll right, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIMartin Di Caro reports on transportation for WAMU 88.5. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we're exploring the culture behind Oktoberfest. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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