Mary Cheh Speaks Out on Taxi Reform, Uber, and the Future of Cab Service in DC

The DC council member also hopes there won’t be a taxi strike.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Mary Cheh is on fire. The Ward 3 City council member and head of the Transportation Committee is at no loss for words when the subject is her effort to drag the city’s taxi industry “into the 21st century.” But while she won’t go so far as to brand the Taxi Commission with the “c” word—corrupt—she says, “I appreciate that some people have that view.” She’s not going to rest, though, until meaningful reform has happened, and if those reforms get hobbled, Cheh says that “maybe something even more radical is needed to shake it all up.”

Tuesday night, after a day of significant council action on taxi industry improvements, Cheh says she had a hard time sleeping. In an almost existential way, she found herself awake in the wee hours, wondering, “Why should we regulate taxis? What is it we want them to be? Why can’t we regulate them or take them off the road? Maybe there’s a simpler way to get us where we need to go.” She said taxis are only one piece of the transportation big picture that includes buses, car services, bicycles, and even walking. “It all has to be integrated and work together.”

To that end, she talks of the possibility of absorbing the Taxi Commission into the Department of Transportation. “I think that would be a better way to handle it,” she says. “The Taxi Commission does come out of a history of shady dealings and questionable oversight. I would really like to have [it] operated like any other executive agency.”

For right now, though, with actions taken yesterday by the City Council, she feels “we’re on the right path.” The council approved measures that will require taxis to use GPS, credit card readers and modern meters, and ultimately to all look the same, regulations that do not sit well with the taxi cab drivers. Cheh said she learned this morning that some are now calling for a general strike. “I don’t know if that’s just bluster,” she says. “I think they should be really interested in improving their services. There is a lack of professionalism in the operation of taxis in the District.” She says the new regulations are designed to serve passengers but will also help make the taxis more profitable. “I don’t want them to go on strike, of course. I want them to embrace the changes that are coming. They are for their own good.”

Another flashpoint in yesterday’s transportation debate was the fate of a new service, Uber, that provides chauffeur-driven black sedans and SUVS on demand to subscribers who order their cars through an app. The cars cannot be hailed on the street or ordered by phone for a future time, but the taxi industry worries the successful service could expand in that direction, wiping them out. The Taxi Commission, according to Cheh, was “doing stings” on Uber, claiming its business model was “unlawful in the District.”

Cheh says her objective with the legislation was to “reform the taxi industry and not at all [to] harm Uber. I want Uber to operate. I want them to be very successful. I want them to serve the people in the District who want their service. I’m trying in no way to limit them, to obstruct them.” Has she ever used Uber? “No. I use my bike a lot.” But she says she has been picked up in sedans to be shuttled to interviews at CNN, for example. “I know what the service is like. It’s really nice.”

Nonetheless, Uber felt threatened thanks to a piece of the taxi reform legislation that called for it to have a minimum fare of $15 to prevent Uber from undercutting the taxis. “That wasn’t a problem for Uber,” says Cheh—or so she thought after lengthy negotiations with the company’s Washington representatives. On the eve of the voting, however, she received a very different message from Uber’s owner, Travis Kalanick, who is based in San Francisco. When we talked, she couldn’t recall his name and referred to him as “the guy in California.” Cheh said she has not met Kalanick, “but we may have talked on the phone.” But she’s aware of what he wants. He is “an entrepreneur. He doesn’t like regulation. He didn’t want to be locked into a minimum fare. His people here led me to believe it was okay, but it wasn’t. He said, ‘I’m not going to go along with that.’”

What did the council do? “We took out the minimum rate, but added back the things that make them legal,” says Cheh. The issue of a legally mandated $15 floor rate for Uber is not finished, though. “I’ll hold a hearing in September and revisit this. Meanwhile, they can operate.”

Does Cheh feel what’s ahead is an uphill struggle? “No, I don’t,” she says. “We passed the main taxi reform legislation. I have to put out certain fires.” She says it will take a minimum of a year before the public can see tangible reforms and improvements “because a lot of things are rolling in.” In terms of near changes, passengers could see cars fitted with GPS, accepting credit cards, and using uniform dome lights. Making all the taxis uniform in appearance could take several years, because only new cabs will be required to adopt the new paint job.

Cheh hopes the Taxi Commission will stop taking shots at Uber, stop performing random stings. I suggested that maybe Uber should offer each of the taxi drivers a free ride. Cheh laughed. “Yes, show them how it’s done.” But then she pointed out, “There are 6,000 cabs in this city. It’s not fair to tar them all. Many of them are hard-working and do the right thing. Yes, there’s more than one bad apple, but the whole barrel isn’t bad.”