[Photo by dkmelo]
Last week, D.C. cab drivers staged a protest on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown, blocking traffic and honking in opposition to popular new services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. The drivers argue that those services are unregulated and represent unfair competition to cabs. In contrast to Uber, which was able to mobilize tons of popular support when they were threatened with closure, this cab protest featured only cab drivers. It was a very telling difference.
As such, we decided to compile some readers' horror stories about taking D.C. cabs, which range from the amusing to the terrifying. The stories that follow fall into five rough categories of varying degrees of legality and awfulness: not picking up or refusing to take the passenger to their destination, harassing passengers (mostly women), not knowing where they're going, not showing up when they're supposed to, and claiming the new, mandatory credit card machines aren't working. If you have a story where a driver disobeyed the rules governing cabs, or worse, tip us or let us know in the comments.
Interestingly, all ten people who shared their stories with Curbed had multiple examples of cabs refusing to take them to their desired destination -- to the extent that it was completely routine and unsurprising. Refusing to pick somebody up based on their destination actually breaks two rules: cab drivers are not allowed to ask you where you're going before you get in the cab, and they must take you directly to your destination. One person said that she's developed a strategy of reading the cab company name and number back to the driver, then asking if he's refusing service if a driver stops and asks where she's going. Maybe not a way to make friends, but effective.
One young woman described a particularly egregious, but apparently common, example of a cab driver that simply refused to pick up her friend. She had been mentoring an African-American student for 6 years who was just starting school at American University. After fixing his computer, he was leaving her house in Dupont around midnight. He lived in Anacostia and the Metro was closed so she asked if he needed a cab.
"He looks at me for a minute and then says, 'Can you help me get one?' Now, I've know [him] since he was 12, and it sometimes doesn't occur to me that he is now a 6'3" black man in a hoodie and a giant backpack. So we go to 17th Street. He tried for a minute, no one stops (even though they're clearly empty.) So I hail one (right away, of course.) I open the door for him to get in, and the cab literally drives away. I do it again.
As I open the door for him to get in, the guy asks where he's going. He says Anacostia and the guy makes him get out. So finally, a third time. Same thing, after he tells him Anacostia again, the guy says to get out. I then start offering the guy more money and begging, and wind up having to offer the guy $40 to take him home. [The student] told me that wasn't unusual."
Multiple women also reported harassment or other bizarre behavior from cab drivers. One reader reported a cabbie listening to a book on tape about Ted Bundy, describing how he lured young women to his car and killed them, and shockingly, that's not the most awful story.
One woman described a time when she used Hailo, the taxi hailing app, to get a cab to bring her and her friend to the urgent care center. When the cab arrived at her house, her friend was crying in pain from a kidney infection. Once in the car, the cabbie asked where they were going. She replied urgent care. The cab driver said "I'm a doctor, lie down in the back seat and I'll inspect both of you right now," and laughed evilly. The two women sat in horrified silence for the rest of the ride. To Hailo's credit, when she called and complained about the incident the company fired him on the spot.
In a similar incident, another young woman described being repeatedly propositioned by a driver:
"I got a cab because I was late to work at the restaurant I worked at, for a brunch shift. The driver asked me repeatedly if I would sleep with him and when I said no, kept offering me a higher price. He was clearly on drugs. He said he wanted a 'clean girl,' not a prostitute, which is why he chose me to ask. I was still half asleep and mostly confused so I didn't get his licence or his name."
Another woman had something similar: "The worst possible experience I had was a guy who kept asking me increasingly personal questions, like if I had a boyfriend/husband or if I had kids. When we got close to my destination, he asked me for my phone number. I told him I didn't have a phone at the moment (which wasn't true), and he said he didn't feel comfortable letting me out of the cab to meet my friend until I found out if my friend was at the location. It was just creepy! He wasn't concerned about me. He just didn't want me to get out of his cab."
That sort of behavior isn't only aimed at women, either. One man described a cabbie who continuously talked about a 13-year old he dated in high school and about a busty woman he gave a ride to. "So, although he didn't admit to any criminal activity, he certainly skeeved me out for the entire ride."
While tame in comparison, many people reported problems paying. Almost everyone described cab drivers claiming the now-mandatory credit card machines were broken -- presumably because the machines take a cut of the fares, keep a record of all trips, and often take some time to pay cabbies. Then when the passenger said they didn't have cash, the driver would angrily relent and tell them the machine worked after all, sometimes after long arguments. One person reported that soon after the machines were installed, her cabbie claimed it didn't work and was nasty about it, then left the meter running while she went to the ATM to get money. Others reported cab drivers attempting to charge higher-than-usual flat rates, either by "forgetting" to turn on the meter, especially late at night, or demanding it during busy times. Still others talked about complaints over tips.
"I once paid for my fare and got out, and then the cab driver followed me down the street screaming names at me because I 'only' tipped him $2 on a $9 fare. He claimed that since he picked me up late at night he deserved more and I was ripping him off. Sigh."
Another woman described being berated until she cried after she forgot her wallet.
Not technically illegal, but still frustrating, are service problems: drivers who don't know the city all and dispatched cabs never showing up. A handful of people interviewed reported cabs not arriving for trips to the airport for morning flights, causing a panic often solved by Uber, and others described a general lack of knowledge of the city. For one personal (and amusingly oblivious) example: One day I was going to a DC United game but was running late, so I hailed a cab and asked for RFK Stadium. The cabbie hadn't heard of that. "The big stadium? Where the Nationals used to play?" No luck. He asked the address, and I told him 19th Street and East Capitol. He didn't know where that was either. Eventually I said 1900 East Capitol and he plugged it in his GPS unit. Other people mentioned cab drivers saying they needed gas, then driving the wrong direction and passing the place they were picked up multiple times, all while the meter was running. That's not even mentioning smaller infractions like not displaying their ID or rate card.
Of course, many D.C. cab drivers are hard-working people who know the city and are good at what they do, and Uber has also faced problems, like a driver who was arrested but not charged for rape. (He was fired.) Riders aren't immune to bad behavior either. However, if you're trying to compete with other services, constant stories of drivers routinely disobeying rules, harassing people and breaking laws may not be the best way to win customers, let alone to get them to support you blocking Pennsylvania Avenue.
· Downtown D.C. traffic gridlocked as taxi drivers protest Uber, Lyft, Sidecar [WaPo]
· DC cabs: 20 tested, 20 fail WUSA9 overnight test [WUSA]
· Prosecutors not charging limo driver D.C. police accused in rape [WaPo]
· All Taxicab Confessions [CDC]