Through Open Data, Taxis Can Be a Platform for Innovation

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There’s no denying transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have changed for-hire transportation forever.

Now, in Montgomery County, Maryland, the Washington, D.C., area, and across the country, there has been a dire need to adapt taxi regulations in the face of the rapidly changing industry.

While these transportation network companies (TNCs) are valuable options, they can often out-compete taxis, as they are not mandated to offer service to vulnerable populations. With the framework from new reforms from the Montgomery County Council, however, taxi companies can use open data feeds to provide better service through an ecosystem of innovation.

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation allowing TNCs to operate in Maryland, preempting local jurisdictions from regulating them.

Over the past year, I have been working with the County Council’s Transportation Committee, chaired by Councilmember Roger Berliner, a group of taxi drivers represented by the AFL-CIO, transportation technology companies, the county’s taxi industry, and MCDOT to adapt Montgomery County’s taxi regulations to this new environment.

On July 28, the Montgomery County Council passed a landmark taxi reform bill, covering many of the key reforms for which I had advocated. Most importantly, this bill took steps to eliminate outdated regulatory burdens, protect taxi drivers from exploitation, create a new framework for taxi apps using Montgomery’s fleet, and provide 100 new taxi licenses – 50 of which will go to a driver-owned cooperative operating wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

I am very hopeful that these reforms will create a more balanced and high-performing taxi system in Montgomery County that works better for customers and drivers.

  • Currently, customers must request a wheelchair-accessible taxi days in advance. We hope to cut that down to minutes.
  • Under the old system, drivers were being exploited with high rents, no benefits, and long hours. With these reforms, driving a taxi will still be hard work, but there will be a more balanced relationship between drivers and companies.
  • And with the formation of a driver-owned cooperative, the county’s drivers and customers will have more choices.

But of course, none of that matters if taxis cannot compete with Uber. In order to do this, taxi companies in some cities have attempted to adopt aspects of Uber’s model, such as phone apps and seamless payments. But no matter the features, if a company’s app can only call upon a certain fleet or segment of drivers, it will not offer the same speed, reliability and accessibility as apps drawing upon a greater density of drivers.

That’s why I am especially excited about the development of a framework for universal taxi dispatch apps in the county.

Under my proposal, which the Council adopted, companies can submit taxi dispatch apps to the Montgomery County DOT, which will approve them as “universal dispatch apps” if they meet certain requirements. Most important of this criteria is that each approved app must allow all other approved apps to see and dispatch their drivers through an open data feed, and must dispatch the drivers using other approved apps. This means that no matter which app a customer is using, they will be sent the closest licensed cab, regardless of its affiliated company or app. Drivers can choose among approved apps, but will be required to use at least one.

Right now, the push toward universal dispatch apps is about catching up to the user experience and technology pioneered by Uber and Lyft. But over time, if other jurisdictions adopt this approach, taxis themselves could become a platform for fast-moving innovation, while still maintaining the public safety and universal services goals of regulation. Within this environment, any entrepreneur can think up an idea, develop an app, and have a nationwide fleet of regulated, safe vehicles and drivers at their disposal, giving riders more transportation options and better service.

To learn more about Montgomery County’s taxi reform, read my white paper on Universal Digital Dispatch and the final text of the taxi reform bill.

Photo by East Midtown Partnership.

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