Cheh Puts Others Ahead of Taxi Drivers

Taxi chair Ron Linton testifying Jan. 30 as hundreds of drivers look on.

Hundreds of taxicab drivers attended a Jan. 30 hearing on taxi reform legislation in order to voice their opposition to a bill introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation.

In a slap in the face to drivers, who continue to be treated as an afterthought in an industry that cannot exist without them, five hours passed before the organization responsible for the massive turnout was allowed to testify.

Twelve of the first thirteen witnesses were non-drivers, representing a variety of interests, but particularly the all-important hospitality industry. Not only did the hospitality industry testify first about the taxicab industry, but they were also asked numerous follow up questions, something which councilmembers largely avoided doing with drivers.

Negede Abebe is chairman of The Small Business Association of DC Taxicab Drivers (SBA), which represents three thousand independent DC cabbies. “[SBA] supports the effort to modernize taxicabs,” Abebe said in his testimony. “We don’t, however, support the intrusion into the privacy of the riding public or taxicab drivers by requiring that… GPS units be installed in all taxicabs.” 

The SBA is not alone in raising concerns over the use of tracking devices. The Supreme Court recently ruled, unanimously, that the government’s use of GPS to track a criminal suspect for 28 days violated the Constitution.

Cheh’s legislation calls for all D.C. cabs to be installed with a fancy credit card reader that can track drivers and passengers.

Former taxi chair Leon Swain, who's permitted to wear a gun, refused to say whether he was at the Jan. 30 hearing, and blocked TheFightBack's attempt to take his photo.

But that’s not all the NYC-styled machines will do. They’ll also play ads all day long, in 14-minute loops, explained taxi chair Ron Linton. And while drivers will have to endure this, they won’t see any of the ad revenue, Linton said in his testimony.

It’s unclear whose interests Cheh and Linton are pursuing when they push for ads in cabs. In NYC, passengers find “those bleating miniature television screens” to be “a standard annoyance,” noted The New York Times.

Another issue drivers find troubling, and one which has the potential to put many drivers out of business, is the proposed vintage requirement. “Five years is considered a life cycle for a vehicle,” Linton testified. While that may be true in NYC – where much of DC’s taxi policy originates, and where taxis are driven two or three shifts per day – DC drivers largely own their own vehicles and drive them one shift per day.

Haimanot Bizuayehu, SBA board member, said in his testimony, “The actions by the [Taxi Commission] and seemingly now by the Council sends the message that District doesn’t want to the independent driver to move forward with it.”

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