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Taxi Drivers Shut Down Pennsylvania Avenue to Protest Uber and Lyft

Nearly 1,000 angry cabbies halted midday traffic to demonstrate against "ride-sharing" services.
Cab drivers honked, yelled, and sometimes abandoned their vehicles during the demonstration. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, was snarled in the middle of the workday today by nearly 1,000 ticked-off taxi drivers protesting the growing popularity of “ride-sharing” services like UberX and Lyft.

Blasting their horns, yelling to passersby, and, in some cases, walking away from their cabs, the hacks are irate that the DC Council has failed to regulate new companies like Uber, which the cabbies consider to be taxis in everything but name.

UberX and Lyft add to the car-for-hire industry by allowing private car owners to offer themselves as drivers available to users of the companies’ smartphone apps; since their introduction, taxi drivers have complained that ride-share drivers operate outside the traditional regulatory framework.

Those complaints boiled over on Wednesday, as the garrison of angry cabbies flooded a six-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, east from the John A. Wilson Building. The protest, which started as a caravan that looped around the Capitol, was organized a Teamsters Union-affiliated organization that represents about 2,000 of the District’s taxi drivers.

The taxi drivers’ assocation says it would also like to see the District government ape cease-and-desist orders the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ sent to Uber and Lyft earlier this month. Both companies are ignoring the orders and continue to operate in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

“We’re overregulated and Uber’s not regulated at all,” said Jesse Black, a cab driver and one of the organizers of the Teamster-allied group. Black also disputed suggestions that people walking down the street—including people looking to hail a cab—were annoyed by the sight and sound of hundreds of taxis jamming traffic and filling the air with blaring car horns.

“How annoyed would you be if someone took your salary?” Black said.

Washington’s taxi drivers, who earn a median salary of about $36,000, say they have lost “thousands of dollars” to ride-sharing.

“They should pass some kind of law,” said Fassel Negash, walking away from his Ford Flex and gesturing toward the building where the DC Council operates. “Make them licensed like us or get insurance like us.”

The DC Council is considering legislation, but it’s unlikely to make the cabbies happier. Council members Mary Cheh and David Grosso are sponsoring a bill to allow outfits like Lyft and UberX to operate in the District as long as their drivers meet certain insurance and safety requirements. Both companies say they conduct criminal background checks on their affiliated drivers and provide $1 million liability insurance policies on rides booked through their apps.

“I think there’s space for all these businesses to co-exist,” said Grosso, speaking in his above the din of hundreds of screeching horns. “If all you’re doing is trying to run one business out of town, that’s not the way we’re going to operate.”

Grosso said he believes ride-sharing services “absolutely” need to be regualted but under a different framework than how rank-and-file taxis are. His and Cheh’s bill would allow ordinary cabbies to charge rates outside the city-mandated fare schedule for rides booked through mobile apps.

But Grosso said he had little time for today’s protest, calling it a “bullying tactic.”

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.