Washington taxi drivers soon may have a new word in their job description: ambassador.
In his first interview since his appointment as interim chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, Eric Rogers said professional cabbies must improve their customer service in order to compete with cheaper ride-hailing alternatives such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.
“An ambassador is someone that can go from point A to point B without a GPS, who knows all the hot spots, the best restaurants … it’s the totality of the experience. So when you get into the cab, you are getting in with a professional,” Rogers said in an interview with WAMU 88.5. He was appointed to the job by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) in early January and is awaiting confirmation by the D.C. Council.
When Uber hit the scene as the hottest new thing in personal transportation in late 2011, D.C.’s taxicab fleet — spread among numerous companies and independent owner-operators — was trying to escape its own the Dark Ages. Many cabs were old or dirty. Few accepted credit card payments, and service was considered unreliable.
Three years later, Washington taxis are in much better shape, having undergone a modernization program under the prior commission Chairman Ron Linton. Older vehicles are being phased out, and new vehicles have fresh paint jobs with the official red-and-gray color scheme. All cabs accept credit card payments and are easier to spot with patented dome lights.
Rogers wants to continue the emphasis on improving the customer experience.
“The industry is realizing that it needs to change its business model. And it needs to better serve the residents and visitors to the District, and they are willing to step up and do that,” said Rogers, a lifelong D.C. resident whose background is in government licensing with the District’s consumer affairs department.
No longer ‘stagnant’
The rise of Uber, which has an unknown number of drivers on the streets of Washington competing for fares, has made it more difficult for regulated taxi drivers to earn a living. The District’s fleet over the past year and a half has dropped from about 7,000 to 5,700 active taxis, according to the taxicab commission.
Among Rogers’ priorities will be the successful launch of the District’s universal e-hail app. Beta testing is expected this spring.
“It has taken the private vehicles-for-hire [Uber] to come into the city and force this change, but I think in the end the change will be good for the consumer. The consumer will have more choices,” Rogers said.
“When things are stagnant, it is hard to see some of your failings. When Uber and the other private vehicle-for-hire companies came into the market, they snatched a lot of that business and the cabbies realized they needed to change. The industry realizes it needs to change,” he added. “I’d be more concerned as a driver or as a cab company with how to improve my own business to take business away from Uber, than with what Uber is doing to me.”
Rogers intends to launch an “ambassador training” program for new cab drivers and to place art work produced by local artists inside D.C. cabs.
“I’ve been in preliminary conversations with the Commission on Arts and Humanities about getting local artists’ work into the cabs, and I have also been made aware there are several cab drivers in the city who are great artists and would love to display their work.”
Pending his full confirmation by D.C. Council, Rogers plans to unveil other initiatives, including a plan to increase cab service to presently underserved neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.