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Cabbies Snarl Traffic In Downtown D.C. In Protest Against Ridesharing Services

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A police officer surrounded by D.C. taxicabs tries to deal with gridlock outside of the Wilson Building.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
A police officer surrounded by D.C. taxicabs tries to deal with gridlock outside of the Wilson Building.

Several hundred horn-honking D.C. taxicabs descended upon downtown Washington during midday on Wednesday, shutting down several blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest to protest what they view as unfair competition from unregulated, on-demand “ridesharing” services.

At a noisy rally in Freedom Plaza, where the blare of horns drowned out a bull horn, representatives of Teamsters Local 922 led cab drivers in chants of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

As the ear-splitting cacophony of chanting and honking drew small crowds of onlookers and police tried to free blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue from taxi gridlock, a Teamsters official led a small contingent of cabbies into the Wilson Building where they delivered a petition to the offices of Council members Mary Cheh and David Grosso and Mayor Vincent Gray. The Teamsters are asking the District to issue a cease-and-desist order against UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar, claiming the transportation tech companies operate illegally and without any of the regulations that burden metered taxi drivers.

Council member Cheh, who is working on a final legislative proposal to regulate the app-based “ridesharing” services that the tech startups find acceptable, was not in her office Wednesday afternoon when the Teamsters contingent arrived. The petition was handed to Cheh’s attorney who promised to deliver it to the council member.

The contingent followed Council member Grosso into an elevator where he reluctantly accepted the Teamsters’ petition. Lastly the group dropped off their paperwork at the mayor’s office.

The Teamsters, which represents about 2,000 D.C. cab drivers, say UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar are siphoning customers from regulated, metered taxicabs because they can charge lower fares. Also at issue: whether the “ridesharing” services should have to carry the same level of liability insurance required by the D.C. Taxicab Commission for the District’s fleet of approximately 6,500 privately owned vehicles.

The insurance industry contends passengers are at risk of falling into an insurance gap when riding with UberX, Lyft, or Sidecar because those drivers often use their personal vehicles as taxis. Therefore, they would not be covered under standard liability policies. More than a dozen states have warned such drivers and passengers of potential insurance gaps. Virginia issued a cease-and-desist order against the “ridesharing” services.

Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett defended the company’s policies and practices.

“The D.C. Council supports us. We've had a number of conversations and they consistently pass legislation to allow UberX, our ridesharing platform, to operate in D.C. So for it to be described as illegal is inaccurate when the D.C. Council stands behind us,” Bennett said. “Our insurance policy is industry-leading.”

Bennett said Uber has a solution for any cab driver frustrated by the regulations imposed by the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

“We offer increased safety and more flexibility so any driver that wants to join Uber, we welcome him or her,” he said.

District regulators issued a statement following the Freedom Plaza protest.

“The D.C. Taxicab Commission is currently working on updated regulations that will ensure a fair, balanced, competitive, and safe system for passengers and drivers. The District’s City Council is also currently considering legislation regarding the role of private vehicles in public transportation,” the statement said.

“In the meantime, DCTC will continue to enforce against illegal street hails and violations of the reciprocity agreement between Virginia and Maryland. This includes private vehicles that are cited and fined as they have chosen not to register with DCTC; and without proper registration they are operating illegally.”

Royale Simms, the Teamsters representative who delivered the petition, said he hopes the Council and Mayor Gray will reconsider their embrace of Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft.

“We caught them off-guard. We were able to communicate our frustrations with the way the industry has been operating right now,” Simms said.

The traffic-blocking taxi caravan that started at East Potomac Park, snaked past the Capitol and Supreme Court, before eventually finding its way to Freedom Plaza seemed to help UberX, at least for a couple hours. UberX charged ‘surge pricing’ of 1.75 times its usual fare during midday, presumably because of the shortage of regular taxicabs.

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