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Taxis


One lawmaker wants to help taxis compete with Uber, nationwide

Could you one day use a single app, in cities all across the nation, to hail a taxi and pay for it just as you can with Uber or Lyft? Montgomery County is trying to make that happen with a new law proposed by county councilmember Hans Riemer.


Smartphone as taxi image from Shutterstock.

Today, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have many advantages over traditional taxis. They get a car to come to you and tell you how long you'll have to wait. They connect you with the driver en route. They control quality to make sure drivers have clean and well-maintained cars and treat customers well. At the end of the ride, you don't have to deal with payment—the app takes care of it.

When ride-hailing services burst onto the scene, taxis did almost none of these. You could call one, but in some places, often had little guarantee one would even show up at all. In DC, there are dozens of different cab companies, so even calling one meant picking a company and hoping one of their cars was available. And you'd have no idea if the car that showed up was even clean.

Incumbent taxi drivers complained that ride-hailing app services weren't playing on a level field; they didn't have to deal with the same level of regulation, for instance. In many US jurisdictions including DC, Maryland, and Virginia, there are now laws putting some regulations on ride-hailing companies but not every one that applies to taxis.

Can taxis have their own ride-hailing app?

There have also been efforts to help taxis compete with Uber and Lyft. The app Hailo, for instance, provided an Uber-like service but for participating taxis; it could also show you nearby cabs, hail one, track it, and handle payment. I enjoyed using it and found the drivers it worked with both pleasant and knowledgeable about how to navigate the city, but sadly Hailo suddenly shut down in October 2014 after operating for a little over a year, saying it couldn't compete with Uber and Lyft.

After that, former DC Taxi Commission head Ron Linton tried to get taxi drivers to collaborate on an app. A new driver co-op would provide every driver with the smartphone to log onto the service, and drivers could choose to receive hails through the app.

A contractor is working on this app, but nothing has materialized yet. It also seemed unlikely that an app managed by a taxi co-op would have close to the polish of Uber and Lyft, or Uber's uber-large marketing budget. And who would handle customer service issues? Would someone kick out bad drivers in rattletrap cars?

Taxi hailing image from Shutterstock.

Is there another way?

Hans Riemer, an at-large councilmember in Montgomery County, and his staff proposed a different approach, which passed into law in a recent taxi bill: let any company create an app to hail taxis, Uber-style, but also require them to share data so that any app can access all of the taxis.

In other words, say there are three Uber-like services, GreenCab, BlueCab, and PurpleCab, all operating in Montgomery County. Each one has a stable of about 50 drivers who use its software, and each has an app consumers can download.

For the rider, there is a problem: To get a taxi, the rider might need to try all three apps in case there are no GreenCab cars nearby but there are PurpleCab cars. Under Riemer's plan, if the local Department of Transportation approves all three apps, they would have to share the car locations, so the PurpleCab app could show the BlueCabs and vice versa, or someone else could create their own app that shows them all.

Every driver would be legally required to work with at least one of the companies, ensuring that all taxis are available to riders to call.

This has advantages over the "co-op" plan because there's an opportunity for competition. Instead of taxis having just one company and just one app, which could be clunky and bureaucratic, a more nimble company could always come in and start competing by building a better app.

This system isn't exactly like Uber

If it gets off the ground, this could give taxi drivers a great way to participate in the app-based market. In jurisdictions with few Uber or Lyft cars, getting all existing taxis on a system could actually offer more choices than using one of those services. Also, taxi drivers often know more about navigating their area than many inexperienced Uber drivers.

On the other hand, Uber and Lyft compete with taxis on more than quality of the app and number of cars; there is customer service, price, and the quality of the vehicles. In some cities, like DC, a big complaint about legacy cabs is that some are in very bad shape. A taxi hailing system, either the co-op or Riemer's plan, doesn't duplicate every element of ride-hailing.

Hailo, when it was operating, only worked with a subset of cabs, and in my anecdotal experience, they were generally better-maintained and had friendlier, more knowledgeable drivers than the random cab you might hail. Under a taxi dispatch system, there would not be an equivalent of the "star" rating system where riders can give feedback about their driver. Nor would drivers get kicked out for getting low ratings.

Still, taxis don't have to be exactly like Uber. If they can just make it easy for a rider to request one, see how far away it is, contact the driver, and pay without having to pull out cash or a credit card, just like on a ride-hailing service, that would help existing taxis compete and offer riders more choice.


Photo by WNYC New York Public Radio on Flickr.

If every city does this...

Riemer hopes that more cities and counties will follow a similar model and make their open data feeds follow a common standard. If that comes to pass, a rider of the hypothetical BlueCab app could not only get any Montgomery County taxi, but travel to another place and be able to hail a local cab even if the BlueCab company has no cars there.

With Capital Bikeshare, for example, there's a publicly-accessible electronic file of where the docks are located and how full they are. That file is the same for every system using Bixi-based technology, which means that if someone writes an app for Washington, it works in a lot of other cities with almost no extra code.

Transit systems has a standard, called GTFS, which they use to share route and schedule data. An app to show you a bus route in one city can work, with little extra effort, in thousands of cities.

This is a big advantage for Uber and Lyft right now. A user of one of those services can fly to a new city and pull out the same, familiar app. If Riemer's vision comes to pass, the same could happen for your local taxi hailing app as well.

For now, the Montgomery County DOT is writing specific regulations to implement the law Riemer passed. Those will work out many of the details. The DOT and Riemer's staff have also spoken to technology companies that might create such apps.

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Taxis


The AP bans the term "ride-sharing" for Uber & Lyft

Companies like Uber and Lyft have often referred to their services as "ride-sharing." But that's not an accurate term. The Associated Press now agrees, and has banned the word for Uber-like services in its widely-used style guide. The better term, AP says, is "ride-hailing."


Screen capture by Daniel Guzman.

In July, I criticized the trend of calling these and other services "sharing" and called on Greater Greater Washington readers to come up with a better term.

When a number of people collectively buy something so all can use it, that may be sharing. When a company brokers transactions between people buying a good (in this case, rides) and people who can sell that good, that's not sharing.

As Charlie Warzel explained in BuzzFeed, "Though Uber has recently introduced a carpooling service, the vast majority of services that Uber and Lyft and others provide mimics a traditional taxi or driver service. You don't get in an Uber to share a ride with another paying passenger."

There are already ride systems and services that are much more properly "sharing." Virginia has long had the practice of "slugging," where drivers pick up other passengers at designated lots in order to use the carpool lanes. Other people are creating companies that help people actually share rides.

Jenny O'Brien is a community manager for Carma, a smartphone app that connects drivers and riders with similar commutes for carpooling. She says, "When I tell a potential user about Carma, as soon as I say 'app' and 'ridesharing' they say, 'Oh, like Uber!' Then I have to explain that Uber is more like a taxi. It's frustrating that the public lumps us together because of the misuse of the term 'ridesharing.'"

Many writers and publications follow the AP Stylebook. It is fortunate that AP has agreed with us and others to more accurately describe this new technology and services.

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Taxis


Regulators want to create a new app for taxis to compete with Uber. Would it succeed?

Taxi operators have complained that companies like Uber and Lyft are not competing on a "level playing field" with more heavily-regulated taxis. In response, DC Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton has suggested, in effect, a way for the taxis to compete with Uber: Run their own Uber-like app. Would it work?


Photo by Koman Tam on Flickr.

The proposal originated when some (as-yet-unnamed) group offered to donate code for a similar app to the Taxi Commission. Linton would have the taxi operators create a cooperative company that would then control and market the app and set rates for rides using it.

The co-op would have to provide every taxi driver in the city with a smartphone to log into the app and accept rides, whether or not they've bought into the co-op or not. But nobody would force the driver to actually log in.

Linton says that this will give the industry a chance to compete. But it's up to that industry to seize the opportunity—or risk going out of business.

Why might you use the app?

If the industry does indeed embrace this path, there could be some real reasons to use such an app. In my anecdotal experience trying UberX and regular taxis, the taxi drivers know faster routes around town and also have an easier time actually getting to my house rather than circling the neighborhood multiple times.

We actually have Uber-like apps that hail regular taxis now. Hailo, like Uber, lets you see the locations of taxis that work with the app, get an estimate of time to pick you up, and find out within seconds which cab can come get you.

Mytaxi is another app offering this functionality. Uber also has its own taxi mode, though the company pushes the other options like UberX more actively. Curb, formerly Taxi Magic, also has an app, though right now that just passes your request to a taxi company's dispatcher rather than finding you a vehicle directly.

Some riders might want to choose an app that brings more experienced drivers. Some might also want to patronize an app for drivers who earn something closer to a living wage. But they will only do that if the service is actually better.

Finally, if every taxi driver in DC gets a device to log on, that's a lot of cars. The services like Hailo have only gotten a small minority of taxis on board; this would bring a big fleet right from the start.

Why might the app fail?

This app would compete with all of the other apps. Those have companies with marketing budgets behind them, and a built-in user base.

We don't know how good this app is from a technical standpoint. If it's a lot clunkier than Hailo and Uber, people won't use it. And even if it's great now, keeping an app competitive requires constant technical work. Will the co-op be able to hire the right people with the coding chops to pull it off?

Also, part of the promise of new "sharing economy" tools is that user feedback through "stars" and other means provides a check on quality that regulators formerly offered. Instead of needing inspectors to check a hotel's cleanliness, an Airbnb user can just see what other people who stayed there recently said. With taxis, Uber and Hailo and the others have a strong incentive

Ubser, Hailo, and the others have strong incentives to dump drivers who aren't providing good rides or good customer service. If a driver gets low stars regularly, there's a good chance they'll stop working with the driver.

Linton says the proposed regulations allow the co-op to kick drivers off the system for cause. One question is, will it? The co-op's managers could decide that to compete with the likes of Uber, they need to maintain high quality. Or, they could instead prioritize protecting all members, as some labor unions end up doing, regardless of performance.

One big reason many DC residents embraced Uber is because there were a lot of old, decrepit taxis with drivers who seemed to be trying to cheat them (and because payment is a breeze). I've found Hailo cabs to be in good shape and it's just as easy to pay with Hailo, but if the co-op has every cab, will it be able to ensure riders don't get one of the small minority of really bad taxis?

There might be a better way

Taxi drivers might compete even better with Uber if the co-op can negotiate with companies like Hailo or mytaxi or another to essentially offer the large fleet of taxi drivers at one fell swoop.

The co-op could still run its own app, but wouldn't succeed or fail based on whether it can build, run, and market an app. Instead, it can draw on the talents of a company that's good at app development and marketing.

To make this work, the co-op would just need to set up a computer-to-computer interface, known as an API, where a Hailo-type app could look up the locations of nearby taxis and ask them to accept a ride. The co-cop would be the backend, and its chosen partner(s) could be the front end.

The co-op would negotiate rates and could ensure its drivers get a reasonable wage while also being competitive. It could do what it's positioned to be good at—representing drivers' needs—while not trying to also be the best tech company out there, something governments and industry associations have a poor track record on.

Update: Hailo also announced today it is closing its operations in North America. This makes the app likely more necessary if taxis are to compete with Uber and Lyft, because competitor apps aren't finding profitability doing it on their own. Alternately, it means that if the industry consortium existed and could offer more cabs to companies like Hailo, it could boost their success and productivity.

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Transit


DC will start saving a lot of money while offering better transit for persons with disabilities

Paratransit service for persons with disabilities will soon get better for riders, and cheaper for the DC government. New rules will go into effect today, which will let up to 33 wheelchair-accessible taxis offer paratransit rides instead of WMATA's MetroAccess system. The rules could save the government about $1.8 million a year.


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Rising MetroAccess costs were a big part of budget gaps during the recession. But policy experts already knew the solution: use taxis for many trips made by the current dedicated vans. Taxi operators already have vehicles out there on the road, and can often provide trips for far less than the cost of the vans.

Every time a person with a disability takes a MetroAccess ride, it costs $51. The rider now pays $6; DC (if it's a trip inside the District) pays $45. But we know that taxis are able to make money charging far less for a ride, and while they would have to buy more expensive vehicles to accommodate a range of disabilities, there's still a lot of savings to be had.

The new regulations authorize two operators with central dispatching services to start offering rides to dialysis patients, according to Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton. This segment of MetroAccess rides are the first group to try out the new taxi-based system, and many of them are able to walk on their own as well. They will call up these taxi companies for their rides and pay $5, instead of $6. DC will pay $28, instead of $45.

In addition, for every 3,000 trips the new vehicles take, the operator will have to buy a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle to add to the fleet. In between serving MetroAccess riders, these taxi vehicles can give rides to residents just as other taxis can. That is what makes it worthwhile to offer this service for $33 a ride instead of $51 a ride for MetroAccess's vans.

Besides the cost advantage, this system should be far more convenient for the actual rider. MetroAccess users now have to book their trips at least a day in advance. Could you imagine not being able to leave your house or neighborhood without planning at least a day ahead? With the new system, riders will only have to reserve an hour ahead.

Linton says that WMATA was only willing to allow this system to serve at most 100,000 trips a year. He didn't go into specifics about the negotiations with WMATA, but perhaps it has something to do with limits in the WMATA's contract with the MetroAccess vendor which guarantee enough rides for that company.

If taxis could serve all of DC's 3,000 eligible MetroAccess riders, Linton estimates that the city could save $15 million a year. That's a big savings. Linton said that if DC's schools used the same system to transport students with disabilities it could save another $15-18 million a year.

Other jurisdictions, like Arlington, already use taxis for paratransit. Such a switch would also improve service for people with disabilities that make it impossible to use Metro rail or bus, and also move toward getting WMATA out of the business of providing a service which should more properly be the responsibility of the local government anyway.

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