For many D.C. cab riders, the long-sought modernization program seems to be working. Most cabs accept credit cards, and all should now have new dome lights that indicate whether the cab is available. But behind the scenes, drivers say they’re losing income because problems with city-approved contractors are keeping them from meeting modernization deadlines. Kojo explores the drivers’ frustration and their decision to affiliate with the Teamsters union to gain leverage with the D.C. Taxicab Commission.


  • Martin Di Caro Transportation Reporter, WAMU


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with Azie Dungey. She is an actress who is creator and producer of a web series called, "Ask a Slave." But first, after years of complaints from writers and growing competition from upstarts like Uber, the program to modernize the District of Columbia's taxi fleet is nearing the finish line.

  • 13:07:24

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen the work is complete, every D.C. cab will have a uniformed roof top display that says whether the cab is available, a credit card reader so you don't need cash to pay and a new paint job that will make all D.C. taxis red with a curving gray stripe. The deadline to make most of these improvements was Friday. But some drivers say they haven't been able to comply because of problems with the city approved contractors they have to buy equipment from. Cabbies also complain about the cost of the transition. A fare hike is designed to help, but drivers still have to pay up front for expensive new gear.

  • 13:07:59

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrustration over the program led hundreds of cabbies to vote last week to associate with the Teamsters Union in hopes of gaining greater leverage with the D.C. Taxi Cab Commission that is mandating the changes. Joining me in studio to talk about all of this and more is Martin Di Caro. He is the Transportation Reporter here at WAMU 88.5 Martin, good to see you.

  • 13:08:18

    MR. MARTIN DI CAROHey Kojo. Glad to be here, even though I'm disappointed you won't be declaring this Martin Di Caro Day in the District of Columbia, but...

  • 13:08:26

    NNAMDIWell, I can if you really insist. If you really want me to, I can do that. You can join this conversation with Martin Di Caro and me by calling 800-433-8850, or by sending email to Have you taken a taxi in D.C. lately? Do you like the new dome lights? Did you pay with a credit card? 800-433-8850. Martin, remind us of the history of these changes that are intended to update the District's taxis and make them more user friendly. What was the impetus for the modernization effort?

  • 13:08:57

    CAROKojo, by the way, congrats, though, on all the great things that have been happening to you lately.

  • 13:09:01

    NNAMDIThis past Friday.

  • 13:09:02

    CAROYes. Yes. Well, you touched it in your excellent introduction. It was time for the D.C. taxi cab fleet to be modernized. People wanted it. Taxi drivers certainly wanted to take credit cards and, in fact, many of them already did through the mobile card reader, "Square." It was a question of doing it in a uniform way. The D.C. Taxi Cab Commission wanted to do it in a way where they would even out the playing field so the cab fleet could compete with the upstarts like Uber. And also incorporate into their business model the new apps.

  • 13:09:37

    CAROThe e-hailing apps like "my taxi" and some of the others that allow somebody to get a traditional taxicab to their location through using the smart phone app. So, for the last year or two, it's really been, in fits and starts, a struggle. First to get credit card machines into the cabs. There was a problem with the contract with VeriFone that got killed by an arbitrator, so they had to do it a different way. Then the dome lights were last Friday.

  • 13:10:03

    CAROAccording to the DCTC in an email I received just a little while ago, as of right now, 3500 dome lights have been installed and they're waiting to hear from three more installation companies. So that number might be higher.

  • 13:10:16

    NNAMDINow, these dome lights are supposed to have an LED display that...

  • 13:10:19


  • 13:10:19

    NNAMDISays "Taxi For Hire" "Taxi On Call," or "Taxi Off Duty" when the taxi is in use. The display is blank, it's my understanding that some cabbies have had trouble meeting the deadline for that.

  • 13:10:31

    CAROYes. Well, as I mentioned, about only 3500 out of about 6500 taxis, that's a little bit more than half. 700 dollars or so, I'm told from cab drivers, is very expensive. And the reason why the Taxi Cab Commission wanted to put dome lights on the tops of all cabs, to make it clear to see if the cab was for hire, and the cab driver cannot shut that machine off unless he steps out of his cab and does it. So, it prevents a cabbie from refusing a fare.

  • 13:10:57

    CAROIf he sees somebody, and this has been documented and written about, how cab drivers refuse to go to certain neighborhoods, refuse to pick up certain people. If he sees somebody he doesn't want to pick up, he can't turn off his light like he has a fare already. And that is the subject of a lawsuit.

  • 13:11:12

    NNAMDII was about to say, there's a lawsuit involving that. Who are the parties involved in that lawsuit and what's the issue?

  • 13:11:16

    CAROThere are a handful of cabs who hired the attorney William Pons to represent them in a federal class action. And there are some cab drivers groups. I mean, there haven't been too many formal groups that have come up. This Teamsters Association is fairly new. There are some groups who want to sue on, well, two grounds. First, they say the modern taxi meter system that's installed in all cabs, violates their privacy because it tracks trip data. And that allows the DCTC to tell which parts of the city are underserved.

  • 13:11:48

    CAROWhere are the trips going? And the second part of the lawsuit is about the dome light, where the plaintiffs say that the dome light, you know, you gotta get out of your cab to shut it off. It violates the American Disabilities Act, and hurts older cab drivers who would have trouble in inclement weather, Getting out of their cab and switching it off.

  • 13:12:07

    NNAMDIWhy was the deadline for the installation of credit card readers extended to the end of September, and are all the cabs in compliance now?

  • 13:12:16

    CAROThere are more than 6100 cabs that have credit card machines. The cab deadline, or sort of the credit card deadline, had to be extended because there was a back log, and not all the cabs could get it done in time. It was supposed to -- it was extended multiple times. The most recent time it was extended was through the month of September. They gave cab drivers an extra month. There was a back log. There were hardware shortages, garage space trying to get in there.

  • 13:12:42

    CAROYou know, you had 6,000 cabs, all having to go through a new system. Again, a lot of them already took Square. And I've had -- used Square, even since the new regulations have been passed, a lot of cab drivers are hesitant to use their new system. We can get into that, because that's really been the crux of the problem. And they still want me to use it through Square. So, the DCTC, if I may Kojo, I think for the most...

  • 13:13:06

    NNAMDIThis is the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

  • 13:13:07

    CAROYes. I think, for the most part, the experience for consumers has been positive. They get into the back of a taxi, they'll see the console in the back, they can swipe with their credit card or they can pay in cash. It's what happens after that that has caused a lot of problems for hundreds of cab drivers.

  • 13:13:22

    NNAMDIThree Washington cab companies say hundreds of their drivers lost several days worth of income because of a dispute with a city approved card reader company. What happened?

  • 13:13:31

    CAROWell, that's just one of the PSPs that's been in trouble. And the PSPs are the Payment Service Providers. DCTC allowed for eight to operate in the District. Those are the companies that will process the cab drivers' credit card payments. So, you sit in a cab, you swipe your credit card, the payment service provider will take its two and a half, three percent processing fee, and then send a 25 cent surcharge to the Taxi Cab Commission to fund its operations. And then it's supposed to send the rest of the money to the drivers.

  • 13:13:56

    CAROThis company is Gleike Taxi Meters. It's a French company that has an American base in Chicago. The problem with Gleike, depending on who you ask. If you ask the cab companies, they say, and it's Diamond Cab and Grand Cab, they say that Gleike signed up their taxi drivers to install their hardware, and then could not get the job done. Gleike claims the cabbies and the management were being pain in the necks, weren't meeting installation schedules, were interfering in the process.

  • 13:14:30

    CAROSo Gleike has sued those two companies for breach of contract. Grand Cab says it's owed 182,000 dollars. Now, in the meantime, while this dispute was playing out, and Gleike cancelled its contract, left a lot of cab drivers having to find a new PSP to get into their vehicle so they can stay on the road. Hundreds of drivers lost hours of work. If you have to meet a deadline, and then suddenly the rug is pulled out from underneath you, and the P.S.P. that your company contracted with no longer wants to do business with you, you have to find another one.

  • 13:14:59

    CAROAnd if they're having a back log, you can't get in right away.

  • 13:15:01

    NNAMDIWhat's this other issue that has drivers saying payments from the credit card readers do not reach them in a timely fashion? What's the issue there?

  • 13:15:09

    CAROThat has been the PSP "Hitch," which is a tech startup based in D.C. And they simply bit off more than they could chew. They don't have a lot of staff. In fact, when I showed up at Rock Creek Cab one day to talk to furious drivers, the cabs were lined up going outside the driveway, a "Hitch" representative was there, dealing with all their complaints. "Hitch" was fined last week, six thousand dollars by the DCTC, the Taxi Cab Commission, for failing to pay drivers. I met with "Hitch's" CEO David Miller, in his downtown D.C. office.

  • 13:15:40

    CAROHe explained to me that when they signed up drivers, they did not verify account information. So, when you, say, sign up for an automatic payment, or an automatic deposit, you have give a voided check. They didn't do that. So, if they had incorrect account information, payments were getting bounced back through the system, not getting there on time. But it seems to me there was more to it than that. "Hitch" is having a problem delivering payments on time, and the D.C. Taxi Cab Commission did, in fact, fine them for that.

  • 13:16:06

    NNAMDIOur guest is Martin Di Caro. He is the Transportation Reporter here at WAMU 88.5. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What changes would you like to see to make D.C. cabs more user friendly? You can also send us email to Send us a tweet at kojoshow. Let's go to Tespha in Arlington, Virginia. Tespha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:16:29

    TESPHAThe D.C. Taxi Cab Commission did not make the preparation for the change itself. For example, the supply of the dome lights, the supply of the credit card machines, and enough companies to handle the credit card system. And now, the taxi cab drivers are stuck daytime, now work the credit card machines, do not, in some cases, do not work. We don't get paid, and now, we are stuck for more than a week. Not working, and this is going to take a long time, at least a month, to install the equipment and taxi cab drivers cannot afford going without working even for a week.

  • 13:17:24

    NNAMDIThis is, I guess, Martin Di Caro has been hearing...

  • 13:17:26

    CAROYeah, I've heard that complaint dozens and dozens of times. I chat with cab drivers all the time. I take calls from cab drivers, since I've been digging into this issue quite a bit. And that has been the complaint. And there is a lot of legitimacy to it, when it comes to problems with the payment service providers. We didn't mention another one that already went out of business. USA Motors signed up 900 taxis. They had a terrible business model. Their hardware didn't work correctly, and they had to tell 900 drivers, ok, we're done. You have to find another PSP.

  • 13:17:55

    CARONow, in fairness, USA Motors and the D.C.T.C. are helping cab drivers transition, free of charge, to a new payment service provider, so that they can keep their vehicles on the road. However, the cabbies spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars getting USA Motors equipment into their vehicles. And they can't get that money back.

  • 13:18:12

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tespha. We move on to Bill in Green Belt, Maryland. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:19

    BILLHow you doing, Kojo?

  • 13:18:20

    NNAMDII'm doing well.

  • 13:18:21

    BILLI had heard the promotional earlier today and thought, in fact, your guests were not (word?) reporter, he's a fine reporter, but maybe the representatives of the union organization can't. And my question really is focused in that area. I support an attempt to organize cab drivers in the District, but also in all the surrounding jurisdictions, throughout the metropolitan area. And there are limited attempts by one organization or another here and there, apart from the own associations of drivers here and there.

  • 13:18:57

    BILLWhat's really needed, from my perspective, I think, throughout the metropolitan area is a publicly operated taxi system. Taxi cabs are public automobiles with a driver. The drivers themselves should not be required or responsible for the capital costs of the operation. It should be the public entity. Cabs, if there was a different business model for the industry, cabs could be shifted three times a day, providing 24 hour service throughout the area. There's no regional reciprocity in the current system. There could be...

  • 13:19:30

    NNAMDIDo understand that there are a lot of complaints, Bill, but I'm glad you raised the issue that Martin Di Caro has been reporting on. That the cabbies are so frustrated that they voted last week to affiliate with the Teamsters Union but creating the D.C. Taxi Operators Association. Is the goal of that Association along the lines that Bill is talking about, a whole different kind of system altogether?

  • 13:19:52

    CAROIt is difficult to see how the Teamsters are going to interact with city government, at this point. Their strategies have not been mapped out yet. On that note, in a little while, outside the Wilson building today, the Teamsters have already had a -- they've already called their first protest. They're going to have a rally outside the Wilson Building. I'm not sure how many cab drivers are going to show up but they are going to rally in protest of the dome light issue.

  • 13:20:16

    CAROThe DCTC has said that 25 vehicles are towed for not having the dome lights in time last week. Cabbies have told me it was a much higher number but the DCTC says it's 25. A lot of cabbies aren't on the road. And as I mentioned at the top of the program, Kojo, 3500 dome lights installed out of about 6500 cabs, they have a way to go.

  • 13:20:38

    NNAMDIIs there any relationship between the taxicab associations and the teamsters union or these are just individual taxi drivers who have decided to join the teamsters?

  • 13:20:47

    CAROMost of them are independent owner operators.

  • 13:20:50

    NNAMDIGot it.

  • 13:20:50

    CAROSo they can't really unionize because of that reason. But they already have, according to the teamsters, a thousand of them signed on to pay their $23 per month dues.

  • 13:20:58

    NNAMDIOn to John in Washington, D.C. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:21:05

    JOHNYes, thank you. Each and every driver that I have ridden with in D.C. over the last month or so has complained to the point that you all have been discussing earlier, which is this delay in payments reaching the drivers. And while...

  • 13:21:22

    CAROAnd that's a very real complaint.

  • 13:21:24

    JOHNYeah, and I understand that some of those may be this verification and account administrative detail problem. The pervasiveness suggests to me that there is a lot of money being made by these clearing companies sitting on the float between that time of receipt and time of payment. And it's a $6,000...

  • 13:21:46

    CAROWell, Hitch denies that.

  • 13:21:48

    JOHNWell, yeah, I think it would be an interesting investigation because certainly $6,000 fine as compared to what should be some pretty massive balances over, you know, a number of weeks or months. You know, that's certainly not enough incentive to get people to move and change the issues.

  • 13:22:11

    CAROI'll say -- sorry, Kojo, go ahead.

  • 13:22:12

    NNAMDINo. You said Hitch denied that.

  • 13:22:13

    CAROYeah, Hitch denies that it's sitting on money to collect interest. Hitch will be in a lot of trouble if it does not get its act together. It cannot continue to delay payments to drivers, whether it's nefarious -- and I don't believe it is -- or just through the fact that they bit off more than they could chew. And maybe their solution isn't working correctly.

  • 13:22:29

    CAROAnd, you know, cabbies do complain a lot and I get a lot of reaction from non-cab drivers, the riding public, asking me on Twitter and on emails, why do cabbies always complain? I actually got one Tweet right now from Rob Tingalo on Twitter, "Why do drivers seem to prioritize everything except improving the customer experience?" I think in this case, drivers have a point. When you're only making 25, 30, $35,000 a year and you're used to bringing home a lot of cash every day to pay your bills, then you have 500, 600, $800 not getting to you, it puts you in a real bind.

  • 13:23:01

    NNAMDIThird component of the modernization program is that drivers are supposed to paint their cabs a specific color of red with a curved gray stripe so all D.C. taxis will be uniform, and potential passengers will know what they're looking for when they hail a cab. Explain how the new paint colors are being phased it.

  • 13:23:18

    CAROSo no cab is allowed to be older than seven years. So when a driver gets his new vehicle, it'll just come out of the shop with the new paint job. Also any vehicle older than 15 model years or 300,000 miles will be aged out of service. They're required to have already been replaced by October 1. That's 15 years or older and painted in the new uniform color scheme. Now Yellow Cab is not happy about this, although apparently Yellow Cab doesn't use yellow anymore. I believe it's orange.

  • 13:23:50

    CAROBut they asked -- and this was reported on in Washington Business News by Michael Neibauer -- they asked the DCTC to allow them to have a special logo on the new color scheme so they can at least identify, hey this is Yellow Cab and they were turned down.

  • 13:24:04

    NNAMDIOn now to Anthony in Washington, D.C. Anthony, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:24:11

    ANTHONYYou know, cabbies -- listen very carefully, we don't want to hear it. This is, you know, coming from the -- you know, the cab-riding public. You guys provide a third-rate service. It's impossible to reliably get a taxicab in many neighborhoods throughout the city, not to mention to even get one delivered to your house in a reasonably -- you know, at your home. You know, you're rude, your cabs are dirty, you refuse to turn on heat, air conditioning.

  • 13:24:38

    ANTHONYYou know, it's impossible to schedule a flight or to schedule an appointment. And then after all of that you resist every possible opportunity for any other company to enter the market. So, I mean, until you recognize that you provide a public service and are willing to provide that public service throughout the District of Columbia in some reasonable way, I mean, quite frankly, you know, we really don't want to hear it.

  • 13:25:01


  • 13:25:01

    CAROYou know, you get your act together and then we'll consider, you know, getting our act together.

  • 13:25:04

    NNAMDI...Anthony -- if you don't mind, Anthony, I will put you on hold so you can give a listen to Sam in Washington D.C. who will probably want to respond to some of the things you said because identifies himself as a cab driver. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:25:19

    SA MThank you. Let me just address Anthony's question first. There are always some people who ride who are not happy with the status quo. And I'm not denying that fact. I'm not saying that everyone is clean or -- let's take his view as an exception. I'm driving cab since August of '91. And believe me, I didn't have any kind of complaint in the same story as Anthony's bringing up. Let's forget about that.

  • 13:25:57


  • 13:25:58

    MNot forgetting -- I mean, from my side.

  • 13:26:00

    NNAMDIWell, talk about modernization. How do you feel about modernization?

  • 13:26:03

    CAROSam, may I ask you who your PSP is and is it working for you?

  • 13:26:07

    MIt's VIP. I didn't -- I installed the meter -- I mean, the new meter in June in order not to face the problem with the backlog.

  • 13:26:20

    CAROIs it working for you?

  • 13:26:21

    MIt is working perfectly.

  • 13:26:23


  • 13:26:24

    MOkay. As I said, sir, I experienced with about -- between 10 to 20 people a day and you are expressing, voicing, your own experience and 20 other people which you know. I'm not saying that you are in minority and I am in majority. That's not the question of who is right, who is telling the truth, who is telling the -- not telling the truth.

  • 13:26:46

    MLet me go to the modernization.

  • 13:26:48

    NNAMDIPlease quickly. We're running out of time.

  • 13:26:50

    MOkay. Modernization is a pretext for a detailed intention,. No one is against modernization. The dome light, which they pulled, you cannot see whether a cabbie's available or not unless you are in front of the cab, okay.

  • 13:27:09

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Martin talk about that.

  • 13:27:10

    CAROWell, yeah, the indication -- actually a cab just drove by our new media center and you cannot see the numbers -- the lit numbers, you know, scrolling across the back. And I guess the reason for that is that once a cab's past you, what difference would it make, right? But, you know, the lights only show from the front.

  • 13:27:30

    NNAMDIThey don't pick up as a result of the rearview mirrors. In order to pay for all this, the D.C. Taxi Commission approved a fare increase of 50 cents, half of which goes to the commission for its operation, half goes to the drivers to offset the cost of these upgrades. How's that working out?

  • 13:27:44

    CAROWell, that has been a point of contention. Well, I guess passengers aren't thrilled about paying more for a cab but if they can use a credit card machine. The key part of that is the 25 cent surcharge that funds the DCTC operations, that is why the PSP system was put into place. In order for a PSP to be approved in the District of Columbia, it had to demonstrate it could work inside a live vehicle and then send the 25 cents of all those fares it collects to the DCTC.

  • 13:28:12

    CAROAnd folks have asked me, well why can't cabs use square, which is that little mobile card reader that they attach to their iPhone? Square, according to the DCTC is not capable of processing the trip data and sending the surcharge of $.25 of every fare to the commission.

  • 13:28:27

    NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly, but I have to read this email from Giermo who says, "Why do the new dome lights say taxi for hire? The use of the word taxi is redundant at best but hard to read at worst. We know it's a taxi. How about just using for hire, on call, etcetera? All of those LEDs lit at once make it hard to read when you keep the word taxi in place. Get rid of it." Have you heard that suggestion before?

  • 13:28:48

    CAROI wish that was the worst complaint in this Gordian knot that I've tangled myself in with the cab drivers and the cab issues. I don't have an answer to that one, Kojo.

  • 13:28:56

    NNAMDIHow will these changes bring D.C. taxis more in line with taxis in other major cities?

  • 13:29:01

    CAROIt's hard to see at this point. You know, in New York City, they have the barrier, or is it the divider in the back, right. The cabs are really great in New York City and I have not been in many cabs in other cities but I do go to New York fairly frequently. They have the one console with the video screen and there's one payment. I'm not sure which company it is. Here we have this eight, right -- we have eight different payment service providers. And in my view I think that some of the iron -- the wrinkles here will be ironed out overtime, that the PSPs that can't hack it will simply fall by the wayside. And only the ones that are capable will survive.

  • 13:29:34

    NNAMDIDespite the frustrations of the cab drivers, the public seems to like the idea of a uniform taxi fleet where you can pay by credit card, a Washington Post poll over the summer finding overwhelming support for the changes. How do you think this is all going to play out?

  • 13:29:48

    CAROWell, I think customers are going to like it. I think cab drivers are going to continue to have their complaints. And, as I mentioned, I think the PSPs that are capable are going to stay on. The ones that can't will fall by the wayside. It's too bad though that some cab drivers have been hurt by this. They've lost work time, they've lost some of their sunk costs in hardware that doesn't work anymore. As mentioned, one of the PSPs is out of business already.

  • 13:30:10

    NNAMDIMartin Di Caro is transportation reporter for WAMU 88.5. Martin, always a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:15

    CAROKojo, it was great. Thank you.

  • 13:30:16

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, you will meet Azie Dungey. She's an actress who's creator and producer of the web series, "Ask a Slave." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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