POLITICS
10/09/2014 03:09 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2014

DC Taxis Block Traffic To Protest Ride-Sharing Companies

WASHINGTON -- District of Columbia taxi drivers took a break on Wednesday from shuttling passengers around the city to stage a protest that blocked traffic in downtown Washington for more than two hours. Their message: Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft need to be more strictly regulated.

The cabbies lined up along the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest adjacent to Freedom Plaza, honking their horns and deliberately driving slowly through the streets.

The protest came a week after the D.C. Council unveiled a proposal for new rules that would allow services like Uber and Lyft to operate permanently in the city, but require them to provide primary insurance coverage and background checks for their drivers.

Many of the drivers who participated in Wednesday's protest said the new rules didn't go far enough.

“You don’t give advantages to one industry," said Hailu Asrhu, a 30-year veteran of the cab industry, "and oppress -- take other people’s livelihoods, or jobs -- by regulating them and deregulating their competitors.”

The 60-year-old Ethiopian immigrant said his main complaint is that all ride-sharing services are not equal under the law.

"We're not at a position for competition. Competition has to play a fair game," Asrhu added. "I want regulation or deregulation for everybody -- equality and equally for everyone."

Matthew Purru, who has been a cab driver for 14 years, wants rivals like Uber to simply disappear. He spoke to The Huffington Post just after receiving a ticket from D.C. law enforcement for honking in protest.

"The UberX. They’re killing the business. I can’t make money no more," Purru said, referring to Uber's lower-cost offering. "They have to create something that works for everybody."

For six months, driver Abdeloihab Boujrad worked for a division of Uber known as UberTaxi, which allows customers to electronically request a licensed taxicab through Uber’s smartphone app.

Boujrad said he felt that Uber didn't really care for its drivers, and that the glitches in the app made his job more difficult. When UberX -- whose prices are often lower than those charged by taxis -- began to be offered in the D.C. area last year, it was enough for Boujrad to quit Uber. For him, loyalty to the taxicab industry was the priority.

“When they came out with UberX, I gave them the phone back,” Boujrad said. “I said, 'I don’t want business with you guys.'”

Onlookers who witnessed the protests had mixed reactions.

"I know a lot of those guys, said Ty Jones, a valet manager at Hotel Washington, "but some of these guys have to be more open to the diversity of what customer service is, because most of the people who drive these cabs don't have a clue."

"That's why their industry is struggling and Uber had an opportunity to come in there and corner that part of the market," Jones added.

Javier Vaca, a bystander whose father is a cab driver, sympathized with the protesters. Vaca, a Maryland resident, has never used Uber or Lyft and doesn't recall any of his friends using them, either. The 22-year-old said that his father had made some criticisms of the cab industry, primarily regarding union fees.

"He's expressed some grievances, just because he's losing a lot of business lately," Vaca said. "That being said, he's also expressed grievances against the taxicab commission itself.”

But some onlookers felt differently than Vaca, including one man whose delivery truck broke down in the midst of the protest on F Street. He heckled the drivers as they drove by, frustrated by the constant bellow of horns.

For residents of Washington, taxi drivers and the D.C. Taxicab Commission aren't the most sympathetic lot. City dwellers have long complained about taxis coming late or not at all. Many have welcomed the arrival of Uber as a helpful bit of competition to traditional taxis.

Some residents took their objections to the protest to social media:

In an interesting turn of events, while the protests were taking place Wednesday, the commission unveiled a proposal for a unified electronic hailing app, which would make the commission run similarly to a ride-sharing service. Washington is now the second city, after Chicago, to propose such an app. The proposal, which the commission said was a response to "customer demands," would mandate more than 7,000 taxis licensed by the city to adopt the "One City One Taxi" app.

Through the app, which would be completely governed by the commission, customers would be able to pay just as they do with other ride-sharing apps, but would also have the option of paying inside the vehicle.

The commission also proposed additional benefits for drivers of public vehicles, including disability care, retirement and health and life insurance.

Asrhu described the new proposals as "progress."

"But the fight continues," he added.

Uber also has been seeing protests over UberX from its own drivers. In early September, the drivers of the car service protested on the streets of New York City, right outside Uber's offices in Queens. Their main grievance was that UberX's low-cost fare translated into an unlivable wage for the drivers.

Lyft, another ride-sharing service whose drivers adorn their cars with furry pink mustaches, has also seen backlash from its drivers. Some are even burning their mustaches to protest the fact that they don't make minimum wage.

HuffPost

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