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Cheh's DDOT reorganization: Who makes the plans and sets the priorities for transportation?

Councilmember Mary Cheh wants to split up the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and reorganize transportation-related functions in the government. Is this a good idea? Many of you responded positively to her proposals around taxis and parking, but worried about splitting transit away from the rest of transportation.


Photo by JK Keller on Flickr.

Would such a split create turf battles around how to use each road? Who decides what gets priority for scarce road space and limited funding? These are questions that the plan will have to answer as it evolves, if it's to improve transportation in DC.

Taxi, parking proposals preliminarily popular

The Taxicab Commission seems to serve two roles: deciding policy around how taxis work, and licensing and monitoring taxis. Cheh wants to move the policy and regulatory role into the new District Transit Agency, and move licensing into the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most of you thought that was smart.

For parking, most of our commenters felt it made sense to consolidate the three parking-related functions into one place. Right now, DDOT sets parking policy and rules, DPW writes the tickets, and DMV enforces them. A few people worried about one agency being "judge, jury, and executioner" (according to Cheh, that fear is a reason the functions were split in the past), but most of you feel that with parking functions all in one place, DC will be able to manage parking more adeptly.

But who defines the priorities and plans?

One area that caused the most concern was also an area Cheh's proposal hasn't thoroughly fleshed out: Who decides the purpose of each street, and how to prioritize projects? In short, who plans our transportation network?

Right now, even a unified DDOT does not have a good answer to this question. It has a planning group, which can make lots of long-term and short-term plans, but those planners then have to hand plans over to the engineers, who primarily control the capital budgets and the projects themselves. The engineering group often decides to change or ignore a plan, even one that has gone through a lot of community input.

Also, the bicycle and pedestrian programs are part of planning. You'd think that the bike planners could plan for where a bike facility goes and what type to use, hand it to the engineers. Then they would design the specific details of that project and build it. But as Shane Farthing has documented, that doesn't happen.

Farthing wrote, "In theory, PPSA [the planning group] plans and IMPA [the engineerng group] implements. That, however, assumes that PPSA also has the authority to set the order of priority for IPMA's implementation. It does not." Instead, the planners actually manage most bicycle projects from start to finish.

It's not just bikes. There are no project managers working on implementing bus lanes right now. Meanwhile, there is a whole group of people in IPMA (the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative) dedicated to building bridges and roads around the Anacostia River, so those projects keep happening, even if (as with the Southeast Boulevard) what they design doesn't fit with community desire or the mayor's sustainability plans.

Who decides under Cheh's plan?

A lot of you worried about how this would work in Cheh's new organization. There would now be a "transit" authority that has control over transit, taxi policy, and Capital Bikeshare. Cheh's diagram places "multimodal planning" in this bucket as well.

Would the District Transit Agency decide which streets get a streetcar, a bus lane, a bike lane, a truck route, wider sidewalks, and so on? How does that agency then ensure that the rump DDOT carries out its requests? Which agency prioritizes capital projects, the DTA or DDOT?

If DDOT, then wouldn't DDOT just keep picking and choosing its own priorities and largely ignoring the DTA? If the DTA, is that still really a transit agency, or is it now more of a Transportation Commission and DDOT just a construction department? And then, why not just make DDOT part of DPW or the Department of General Services once more?

If the DTA is still just transit, would you get turf wars between the two about whether to put a transit line or something else on a road? Already, a big obstacle to projects like bus lanes is that WMATA wants to speed up buses, but DDOT might have other ideas for the same roadway, or want to put dollars elsewhere. Will this continue?

Plus, DDOT is an official state Department of Transportation. Every state has to have one, and that's the agency which receives federal money and works with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration. One agency has to define what goes into the regional Comprehensive Long-Range Plan. If DDOT plays this role, then DDOT is still in the driver's seat about overall transportation priorities, but with less responsibility for "multimodal planning."

Here's what you said

A lot of you worried about this issue.

Abigail Zenner wrote, "I worry about more siloing, turf wars, and not treating all street users equally."

MLD wrote:

Splitting off transit, bikeshare and multimodal planning and making that a separate agency on the level with DDOT could lead to problems. First, it can make each side more entrenchedDDOT will now be "roads and highways." You'll have one agency making the plans and another agency tasked with putting those plans in place. Which plans will get priorityDDOT's or the "multimodal" plans?

There is also a big benefit to be gained from having the agency that controls the streets and the agency that plans for transit be the same thing. Especially with how transit-focused the city should be, the transit agency shouldn't have to go begging to the roads people to get plans implemented.

Also, if you are going to create an independent board, go whole-hog and just make it a transportation board in charge of the whole thing.

fonfong echoed the same concern.
Having the bike/transit stuff in a place different than roadway stuff seems to be a recipe to repeat the same dynamic. I'd prefer that it not take an act of Congress, or in this case the new Authority's board, to force the road folks to implement new infrastructure changes.
jeff said, "Given how difficult it has been for the multimodal planners to coordinate their efforts with other divisions within DDOT I imagine that moving them to a different agency is going to simply make that worse."

Jasper wrote, "The problem with breaking up a large institution is that you break up the complexity of scale with walls that people will hide behind, causing conflicts between the different agencies. See the issues with parking. "

BTA said, "Separating cars from "everything else transportation" is only going to further the disconnect in planning for multimodal systems."

What could work?

A lot of you were skeptical about splitting up transportation, but it's not a foregone conclusion that a transit agency wouldn't work. However, at the very least, there needs to be a very clear answer about who sets priorities.

Another possibility, Cheh's staff say, is putting planning into the Office of Planning. That could strengthen that agency, or it could create even more seams between agencies. One obstacle: OP is right now under economic development, making its planning still subordinate to other objectives. Fixing that is possible and even desirable, but would require a larger-scale reorganization (and multiple council committees).

Cheh's staff say that they are hoping the public input process and working group meetings deal with these kinds of questions. That's fine, as long as there is a clear answer by the end, or they are willing to lengthen the process until this is firmly resolved. If transit splits off but this problem isn't fixed, then transportation planning in DC could get much worse, not better.

This is an issue that needs fixing, regardless. A conversation about reorganization can present a great chance to solve this problem. Maybe reorganization would also spur actual change in a way that wouldn't otherwise. But this part of the reorganization can only be worthwhile if we know the new structure will create a clearer chain of command from plans to action.

Taxis


New taxi restrictions block fuel-efficient sedans

Earlier this week, the DC Taxicab Commission approved a new set of regulations for hired cars, placing new restrictions on size for vehicles in the fleet. As a result, many fuel-efficient hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius, won't be allowed.


You can't use an app to ride this in DC. Photo by goldberg on Flickr.

These regulations seem to be a direct response to Uber, a service where people can order black cars and limos, and UberX, which uses smaller cars and is less expensive. After UberX launched, DCTC sought to update its rules for sedans, which previously had no size requirement. Now, cars must be at least 95 cubic feet in volume. When asked what sort of fuel-efficient vehicles qualify for the sedan fleet, DCTC released this statement (emphasis added):

The sedan definition would include more than 40 hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles, just among the EPA sedans, and not including any qualifying SUVs, nor any vehicles able to use alternative fuels . . .
Therefore, although it would not be appropriate to add in the Prius or other basic, economy cars here, it is also patently untrue that no hybrids could be operated as sedans under the new rules. Thus, the definitions, as written, directly serve the need to conserve fuel and protect the environment, without compromising other important interests at stake in the definitions.
Not appropriate to add in the Prius? The Commission argues that since they only ban the most well-known and most well-tested hybrid sedan on the road today that their standard is still pro-environment. That doesn't make any sense.

I'm a firm believer in global warming and think we should be doing all that we can as a society to cut down on pollution. Hybrid cars are one way people are reducing the amount of climate-changing emissions they create and taxis are no exception. From a public policy standpoint, I want to see us moving as much of our transportation system to clean, renewable, or at least hybrid options as possible.

So I reached out to the DC Taxicab Commission to learn what specific "hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles" could be licensed as sedans under the new rules and which would be banned. I emailed a Public Information Officer at DCTC and received with a sample list of vehicles that were 95 cubic feet or larger and were hybrids or ran on alternative fuels. The list included some vehicles that were just a touch up-market from the Prius, including the Bentley Flying Spur, Mercedes 350 and Jaguar XJ:


List from the DC Taxicab Commission.

Looking at this model list, what stands out is how expensive most of them are, as well as how fuel inefficient they are compared to the Prius.

According to FuelEconomy.gov, the 2013 Prius hybrid gets a combined 50 MPG. Meanwhile, some of DCTC's recommended vehicles do much worse. The 2014 Mercedes E350 gets 18 MPG combined on flex-fuel, the 2014 Ford Taurus gets 16 MPG combined on flex-fuel and the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur gets a Hummer H3-like 11 MPG combined on flex-fuel. This is a great example of how flex-fuel vehicles are not, in fact, fuel efficient.


Screen capture from the US Department of Energy.

To be fair, these are just examples cited by the DC Taxicab Commission's press staffer. There are certainly other hybrid vehicles out there that are larger than 95 cubic feet and therefore eligible to be part of the sedan fleet. They apparently didn't merit being used as examples of fuel efficiency.

Leaving aside the relative absurdity of these fuel inefficient and hyper-luxury vehicles as models for fuel-efficient transport in DC, the 95 cubic foot threshold for passenger volume is key, as most Toyota Prius models tap out at 94 cubic feet.

There's a debate to be had about how DC should regulate Uber. There's a totally different debate to be had about whether or not the DC Taxicab Commission is creating nonsensical, punitive regulations aimed to prevent Uber from using fuel-efficient vehicles as part of the DC sedan fleet.

Most importantly, as a city near the water facing the impact of catastrophic climate change, we shouldn't miss opportunities to reduce pollution through regulatory choices. Institutions like DCTC should be seeking to increase fuel efficiency in the sedan fleet. Allowing Priuses and other smaller hybrids to be part of it would do that, while Bentley Flying Spurs do quite the opposite.

Ethical.org, the campaigning arm of Ethical Electric (the progressive renewable energy supplier for whom I work), has set up a petition calling for the DC Taxicab Commission to allow hybrids like the Prius to be part of the sedan fleet. You can sign it here.

Taxis


How should government regulate private ride sharing?

The vast majority of cars being driven around the city have empty seats. Why not let people sell some of them, make some money, and provide more transportation without more traffic? One of the obstacles is that these services often run afoul of regulations designed to protect consumers.


Image from SideCar.

A few companies are trying to make private ride sharing a reality. SideCar lets anyone sign up, undergo a background check and other reviews, and then become a "community driver" who can offer others rides through the service for a "donation."

This is part of a wave of startups providing what's called "collaborative consumption," where people have an economic arrangement to share a resource. There have been services like time share vacations and Zipcar car sharing for many years, where a company owns some resources and sells shares in them, but the newer trend is companies that try to help individual people sell unused capacity in stuff they own.

Airbnb, for example, lets you rent out your apartment when you're not there for extra cash, and makes it possible to find a much more affordable place to stay in busy cities where there aren't that many hotel rooms.

Regulations, however, often don't really account for individuals renting out their own stuff. They usually assume that anyone providing such services is a company that does so as its business, and can undergo inspections, file for permits, and so on. Plus, these regulatory processes try to ensure that the products are safe and healthy, that nobody's getting scammed, and so on.

The new-style collaborative consumption startups are solving the consumer protection problem in a bottom-up, social-media way: people rate buyers and sellers, and a strong reputation replaces a regulator's review. This is what eBay did to give people confidence in buying things from strangers instead of from stores or established catalog companies.

There are the occasional horror stories, but then, regulators miss things, too. But Airbnb is illegal in most cities, and some cities are cracking down, often at the behest of the hotel industry or neighbors who don't like strangers coming and going. Mainly the transactions happen outside the law's blessing, it's making buyers and sellers happy, not causing a lot of trouble, and eventually cities will probably adjust laws to come to terms with it.

What does this mean for ride sharing? Taxi rides are a particularly heavily-regulated area, with powerful driver lobbies that want to restrict the supply of rides. They weren't happy about Uber, and really won't be happy with ride sharing.

Plus, regulators have some legitimate fears. Cars can be really dangerous. Is it important to give people assurance they're riding in a safe one? You're under the physical control of another person. How can we be sure that person isn't going to do bad things? A woman has accused an Uber driver of raping her; police investigated, but prosecutors aren't pressing charges.

Are these roles the government should play? With Uber, many people argued that regulators ought to ensure the driver is well trained, properly licensed, and not a threat. They should ensure the car is safe and well-maintained. But don't regulate the prices, since people can choose to ride Uber or not and don't need the government to decide how much it should cost.

Now, ride sharing companies are essentially trying to take the next step. Must the drivers all have commercial licenses and commercial vehicles? Or can we let anyone sign up to give others rides? Can the companies, like SideCar, self-regulate?

Certainly it's in SideCar's, and Airbnb's, and Uber's interest to be sure everyone is safe. SideCar has extensive safety information on its site. One theory is that these companies will make sure it's safe, or else go out of business. After all, it's easy to spread a bad experience on Twitter, so even a small number of problems could earn the company a bad reputation.

The DC Taxicab Commission isn't ready to embrace this. Having just created regulations for sedan drivers that regulate much less than they are used to, they'll need more outside pressure if they're going to let ridesharing get an even lighter regulatory touch. And should they?

Taxis


Taxis will have credit card readers, and choice

You'll be able to use credit cards in DC taxis by March 30. Instead of one single credit card machine in all cabs, drivers will get the freedom to choose their own technology. But they'll still have to install an in-car display screen that regulators will choose; is that necessary?


Interactive screen in a NYC taxi. Photo by Aaron Landry on Flickr.

The DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC) went through a long bidding process to pick a single piece of technology to go in every taxi. This would take credit cards, show GPS information and ads (whose revenue the taxis would get a cut of), report taxi locations back to the DCTC, and more.

Verifone's bid won, and DCTC started requiring taxis to install Verifone's devices. But a challenge by rivals blocked the process, and on Friday the DCTC partly threw in the towel. Instead of forcing every cab to use Verifone's device, they are instead going to just require that every taxi accept credit cards in some way; the specific technology is up to the driver.

Ron Linton told the Post's Mike DeBonis that their approach changed because the marketplace changed:

"A year ago, when we came up with the 'smart meter' concept, it was a way to get credit cards and the other kind of technological things we wanted in the cabs quickly," he said. "We couldn't say, 'Do this,' because where would the drivers go? What would they get? Since then, there are six, seven, eight companies coming in here offering credit card services. .. They also are offering electronic reservations, which we want."
If the DCTC picks a single piece of technology, everyone's stuck with that choice, whether they made the best call or a bad one, and even if technology evolves.

In that case, doesn't this same logic apply to other features as well? DeBonis writes that Linton plans a new procurement for the system that will have "an interactive screen, GPS navigation and 'panic buttons' to hail authorities." Why should DCTC pick a single piece of technology to do this? Most of this is nice to have, but really not that central to a taxi rider's experience.

One argument for a centralized technology choice, which Councilmember Mary Cheh made when passing the original bill which mandated these credit card, GPS, interactive screen, and panic button systems (and a standard color scheme for taxis), is that taxi drivers are often not the most cutting-edge when it comes to technology. Plus, since most people pick taxis based on whichever one shows up rather than choosing a company ahead of time, there isn't really much incentive today for a taxi to install a better but more expensive system. It probably won't draw more riders.

Therefore, that thinking goes, drivers will just install cheaper systems that could work poorly or break down a lot, and DCTC would spend a lot of effort monitoring and inspecting them, when it could just pick one system and ensure a baseline of quality.

But this also closes the door to innovation and opportunities for different vendors to compete. Any contract will likely run for a number of years, during which the manufacturer will have little reason to add features or make the devices better.

DCTC could just mandate outcomes rather than means, as it's doing with the credit card readers. Drivers could just pick any screen vendor, so long as its display meets certain requirements, like showing the rider the current location and sending GPS data back to DCTC. Drivers can keep the advertising revenue as an incentive to install a screen.

On the other hand, this could mean an incentive for drivers to pick a screen that gives them the most money (maybe by being most intrusive with its ads) rather than being most useful for the rider.

What do you think is betterletting drivers pick their in-car screens, even if their incentives don't match the rider's, or having regulators pick it, which locks all cabs into a single technology for a long period of time?

Taxis


Taxi Commission proposed own Uber-style "surge pricing"

Late yesterday afternoon, the DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC) announced that taxis could charge an extra $1 per passenger when Nats playoff games are in town. Confusion and outrage ensued, and within 2 hours, Mayor Gray rejected the plan, and the commission has rescinded it.


Photo by JL08 on Flickr.

Ironically, this move has a lot in common with Uber's "surge pricing," which proposed regulations from the Taxicab Commission would forbid. It would apply from 2 hours before games start until 4 am the following morning.

The Taxi Commission posted a short notice last Thursday about the surcharge, but with few other details. It did not notify the media at the time.

The PR snafu, short notice, and poor timing sank the proposal, but had the commission handled the rollout better and avoided the firestorm, would this charge have worked?

What did the commission want to accomplish? Linton said in the news release,

We expect multiple riders to be using taxi services. The additional fare provides a fair compensation to drivers. It will also offer an incentive to deal with the increased congestion around the ballpark that could otherwise depress service, as well as assure service in other parts of the city.
At first blush, these reasons seem nonsensical and contradictory. The commission wants to encourage drivers to operate around the ballpark, so they have a surcharge to create an incentive for drivers to head to the ballpark. But then, they want drivers to not all cluster around the ballpark, so they have a surcharge for drivers to go elsewhere. Don't these just cancel each other out?

Commenters online seem to feel the same way. On the City Paper post, commenter "One City!" wrote, "I love this city so much. Whenever you think we've reached the height of absurdity, the DCTC is there to show you we still have room to grow." RedLineHero said on the Washington Post site, "What the H-E-double-hockey-stick kind of harebrained idea is that? a surcharge during the playoffs? You have GOT to be kidding me. Good on Mayor Gray for shooting that down."

Uber "surge pricing" gets more drivers on the road

This surcharge is actually a lot like popular car service Uber's "surge pricing." If demand gets high, Uber increases its fares, first to 1¼ normal, then 1½, and so on. Anyone who books a car gets a notification about the higher pricing before the car is dispatched. All of the extra money goes to the drivers.

At the recent hearing, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick defended the practice. He said that the primary reason is to increase supply. They don't want riders unable to book their cars. At busy times, by raising the price and giving drivers the money, he said, it encourages more of their drivers to get out on the road and serve customers.

By that logic, the surcharge makes some sense. Many drivers work at different times of day. A bonus for working at this likely busy time could actually encourage drivers to switch their schedules around if they can, and be available during games. Some could go to Nats Park and serve fares there, but since the surge price applies all around the city, it will also encourage drivers to serve other neighborhoods.

DCTC's explanations don't hold water

If this was the DCTC's thinking, they certainly didn't make it clear. Will Sommer at the City Paper wrote, "Taxi Cab Commission spokesman Neville Waters says the extra charge has two functions: ensuring that the city's cab drivers don't just swarm Nationals Park, and making trips more profitable for drivers who are stuck in stadium traffic." He quoted Waters saying that without the surcharge, drivers would only drive to the ballpark and nowhere else.

These reasons don't match the policy. If DCTC is worried drivers will only drive to the ballpark, why would a surcharge that applies in all neighborhoods have any effect? It doesn't make trips around the ballpark more or less appealing compared to others.

As for the second argument, compensating drivers for traffic is why the rates include both time and distance. The playoff games probably won't cause traffic jams any worse than other events in DC, and the commission doesn't authorize surcharges every time there's a motorcade. If the DCTC believes that large traffic jams cause drivers to unfairly lose money, then they should raise the per-minute idling rate instead of using surcharges.

However, if the DCTC actually just wants to get more cabs on the road, this surcharge isn't a bad way to do that. It would just help a lot for them to actually articulate the economic reasons.

Wakehead commented at the Post, "How about they have more taxis work for the Nats games? Or is the target service model 'lines and surcharges'?" A rational answer to this could be, "Actually, the surcharge does get more taxis to work the games; it's lines OR surcharges, not lines AND surcharges, and we chose surcharges over lines."

We don't know what was going on inside the Taxi Commission's heads, but they are behaving as though they have some vague and general sense of the economic levers they have at their disposal, but aren't able to actually discuss it in clear terms.

The same dynamic played out at the recent taxi hearing, when people like Kalanick seemed to be speaking one economics-based language, and Linton and members of the DC Council a different law-based language. Ultimately, they agreed with one another, but it took hours (and some taxi drivers who didn't speak in economics) to break through the language barrier.

DCTC might actually want to consider trying a surcharge at a future event, like the Inauguration, but explaining it better. Trying a surcharge could also help them gauge how much supply it adds; Uber is able to monitor their supply and demand in real time and adjust prices accordingly, but the Taxicab Commission can't do that.

If the commission does come to recognize that it's using demand-based pricing, perhaps that will also make it less hostile to practices like Uber's "surge pricing" and other innovative pricing arrangements from mobile apps and sedan services.

Update: Uber DC manager Rachel Holt wrote in with some helpful information from their surge experience:

From what Uber has seen, during big games demand during the game is usually extremely low. Most people in DC are watching the gameswhether at the stadium, or in bars, or at home, etc. By mandating the additional charges during the game, itself they are just further depressing demand (probably more than the amount of the increase), thus making drivers worse off during this period.
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