Universal Taxi-Hailing Protocol In Focus

The County Council recently passed landmark taxi reform, which included many measures I fought very hard to enact.

Following is some new writing about one of those measures, the universal taxi-hailing protocol. The first article is by DC regional transportation expert David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington; the second is a blog that I wrote for the Mobility Lab, an organization that promotes transportation options for people.


Taxis could be a platform for innovation

I previously wrote about the Council’s efforts to overhaul our taxi regulations to adapt to Uber. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation that allows Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in Maryland and preempts local jurisdictions from regulating them. Over the past year, I have been working with the Council’s Transportation Committee, chaired by Roger Berliner, a group of taxi drivers represented by the AFL-CIO, transportation technology companies, the County’s taxi industry and MCDOT to adapt our taxi regulations to this new environment.

On July 28, the Council passed a landmark taxi reform bill, and I am very pleased that almost all of the reforms I advocated for were included. The key parts of the bill were:

  • Eliminating outdated regulatory burdens
  • Protecting taxi drivers from exploitation
  • Creating a groundbreaking new framework for taxi apps to use our taxi fleet as a platform for innovation (adapted from my Bill 55-14)
  • Providing 100 new taxi licenses, 50 of which will go to a new, 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, taxi 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, drivers and customers will have more choices.

But of course, none of that matters if taxis cannot compete with Uber. 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 DOT, which will approve them as “universal dispatch apps” if they meet certain requirements. Drivers can choose among approved apps, but will be required to use at least one. The most important requirement 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 get sent the closest licensed cab, regardless of which company or app it is affiliated with.

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. Any entrepreneur that can think up an idea and develop an app could have a nationwide fleet of regulated, safe vehicles and drivers at their disposal.

If you’d like to learn more about this idea, here is a White Paper I wrote to explain why I think this development is so important. The White Paper also includes model legislation that other jurisdictions can adapt to implement this approach.

Learn More about Bill 53-14 – Taxicabs:

– Staff Analysis prepared for Council action

Final text of Bill 53-14

White Paper on Universal Digital Dispatch


Council backs historic liquor reforms

Since the end of prohibition in 1933, Montgomery County government has barred private restaurants and stores from purchasing alcohol from private distributors, requiring them to buy exclusively from the Department of Liquor Control warehouse.

As a result, Montgomery County has become known as a very difficult place to run great restaurants or beer and wine stores and a place where consumers cannot get the choices that are available in other communities.

This policy is the aspect of liquor control that I feel most needs to change, and I am pleased to share that today the County Council backed a resolution that will ask our state lawmakers to move forward with an historic reform: to liberate our 1,000 restaurants and stores to buy craft beer and fine wines directly from private distributors.

Throughout 2015, the County Council’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Liquor Control, which I chair and which also includes Council President George Leventhal and Councilmember Marc Elrich, has taken a deep look into the County’s liquor regulations and how they affect our community.

What we have found has been disheartening. Our restaurants and our beer and wine stores are having tremendous problems ordering from the DLC — all too often they are stuck with empty shelves and empty taps because their orders never arrive.

Problems at the DLC have become more significant partly because the consumer environment today is radically different from 80 years ago when our system was established, or even 20 years ago when the modern craft beer movement began. Today, to prosper, our restaurants and stores need an ever-expanding list of choices of specialty beer and wine — because that is what our residents want and can get elsewhere in the region.

Sales data, unfortunately shows that county residents are spending their money outside of the county — our per person in-county sales are about 1/3 less here than in Howard, Frederick and Prince George’s counties. What a loss of economic impact for our restaurants and stores and the families that depend on jobs in those industries.

The Council Committee’s solution is to allow restaurants and stores to buy “special order” products directly from private distributors. The DLC maintains a list of about 29,000 products that can be bought by restaurants and stores. About 4,500 are stocked in the warehouse for delivery, while about 24,500, largely craft beer and wine, are special order.

For restaurants and stores that want to showcase variety and choice with craft beer and wine, and the consumers who love those products, the committee’s proposed reforms are a game changer. Some restaurants and stores today have as high as 90% or even 100% of their beer/wine lists as special order.

The fiscal and employment impact on the county is manageable, particularly if the county does a better job running the department more profitably. Towards that goal, the committee has recommended expanding the number of county liquor stores. Montgomery County is the only retailer of spirits in the county, and operates 25 stores. Thanks to committee progress already embraced by the County Council and the DLC, the county will open 3 more stores in FY16 and more in subsequent years as part of a “retail modernization” plan. Each store averages about $750,000 in profits to the county while employing about 8 county workers. These new stores can absorb any workers who might be displaced by the change in distribution policy.

A second reform recommended by the committee is for the state to establish a small fee on distributors for the rights to sell into the county — a clean and simple way for the county to change how it claims revenue from alcohol sales.

The full Council’s actions today constitute a recommendation to the Montgomery County delegation in the state legislature, which has jurisdiction over liquor laws. We hope to advance legislation in the Spring 2016 session to take effect later in 2016.


Next Steps in DLC Reform

The full Montgomery County Council is now considering recommendations to reform the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control by allowing restaurants and retail beer/wine stores to deal directly with private distributors for “special order” products. The Department of Liquor Control maintains a list of about 29,000 products that can be bought by restaurants and stores; about 24,500 are special order.

On July 21 at 7:30pm in Rockville, the County Council will conduct a public hearing about a resolution supporting this change, which the Ad-hoc Committee has introduced to the County Council.

The Council is scheduled to vote on July 28. The resolution is a request to our state delegation to draft and support legislation that will enable the county to implement this change.

This proposal represents achievable and meaningful reform, but we need to hear from you. Can you make it? Please request to testify by calling 240.777.7803 before 10am, July 21.

You can view the resolution here; please let me know if you have any questions by emailing me at or calling me at 240-777-7964.