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Update on our bicycle safety efforts

According to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), Montgomery County is finally catching up – and in some ways surpassing – the District and Northern Virginia when it comes to next generation bicycle planning and infrastructure.

The evidence abounds. The County constructed its first protected bike lane on Woodglen Ave (White Flint) in 2014 and is on the verge of constructing another one on Spring St. (Silver Spring) this summer. Thanks to the efforts of the Greater Olney Civic Association, Councilmember Navarro and myself, the County is strongly considering a separated bike lane on Bowie Mill Rd. in the near future.

Meanwhile, the County’s planning department is diligently working on an update to the County’s Bicycle Master Plan that will incorporate a data-driven approach with the latest in industry best practices. Early work for the Bicycle Master Plan has produced separated bike lane network plans for White Flint, the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, and Silver Spring (in progress).

Woodglen Ave Protected Bike Lane
Woodglen Drive Protected Bike Lane image from Montgomery Planning

The progress is due, in large part, to a fundamental shift in thinking about bicycling in the County. After decades of largely leaving bicyclists to their own devices, the County has begun to intentionally reorient its planning and policy in favor of bicycle safety. Research shows that people are more likely to bicycle in lower-stress environments that provide protection from motor vehicles and separation from pedestrians. We should design biking infrastructure for the people who want to bike, but do not because they do not feel safe doing so—by providing safe, low-stress connections between the County’s activity centers, transit hubs, and neighborhoods. If we can reach this group of people, the use of biking as a mode of transportation will climb considerably.

This shift in policy did not happen by accident, but rather is a result of a concerted effort by bicycle advocates, planners, engineers, and County officials. Events like the First and Second Great MoCo Bicycle Summits I hosted brought together the bicycling community around the common goal of better, safer bicycle infrastructure. Indeed, the momentum created by the second summit led directly to the White Flint and Silver Spring separated bike lane networks that Planning released this fall.

While many positive things are already in motion, we must keep our foot on the pedal (or our bike in high gear). Below are a few ways you can help us keep moving forward:

  1. Get involved with the Bicycle Master Plan. You can share your insights by attending meetings and/or commenting on an interactive cycle concerns map. Also be sure to sign up for email updates from the team.
  2. Help us secure more funding for bicycle safety infrastructure. The County’s capital budget process is just around the corner, and there are number of bicycle projects in the budget, including the Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas (BiPPA), that we need to fully fund. You can write to the County Executive (ocemail@montgomerycountymd.gov) and the County Council (county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov) to let them know you support safe bicycle infrastructure in the County.
  3. Plan on attending the Third Annual Great MoCo Bicycle Summit, which will be held early this Summer (exact date tbd). As always, we will have a group bike ride, refreshments, top-notch presentations, and most importantly, a great gathering of bicycle enthusiasts.

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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

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A Future for Taxis

Das letzte Taxi

On July 21st, the County Council is scheduled to consider a package of groundbreaking reforms to Montgomery County’s taxi regulations.

I truly value Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s) such as Uber and Lyft, but I am compelled to find ways to help taxis compete with TNC’s because taxis are governed by public service mandates such as universal coverage and service to vulnerable populations.

In order to compete, taxis must provide consumers with the features and convenience of a TNC, coupled with the regulated reliability of a taxi. To meet these goals I introduced a bill [pdf] which would have our Department of Transportation develop a centralized, universal dispatch app for all taxis. Councilmembers Berliner and Floreen also introduced bills that changed different aspects of our taxi regulations.

As the Council’s Transportation and Environment (T&E) Committee, led by Committee Chair Roger Berliner, began a review of these three bills, the Council also heard from the Montgomery County Professional Taxi Drivers Union (MCPTU). MCPTU proposed a package of reforms they dubbed the “Taxi Driver’s Bill of Rights.”

As I began to closely examine the taxi industry in Montgomery County and talk to drivers from different companies and different circumstances, I was disturbed to learn that many drivers have to work 12 to 16 hours a day just to break even on the rents they pay on their vehicles. Because taxi drivers are employed as independent contractors, they cannot form a union or bargain collectively, and the companies have no responsibility to provide even basic benefits workers comp or ensure drivers make minimum wage. I always figured that driving a cab was hard work, but I came to learn that the drivers, many of whom are recent immigrants, are often making less than minimum wage and have almost no voice in their working conditions. I have talked with drivers in other jurisdictions who refer to some of our Montgomery County-based drivers as operating under “wage slavery” conditions.

So in February, I sent a letter [pdf] and draft language [pdf] to the T&E Committee proposing a package of legislative changes that would remake Montgomery’s taxi industry to be a better deal for drivers — and thereby hope to preserve the industry, which is rapidly losing drivers to the TNC’s.

Then in April, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation that creates a framework for TNCs to operate in Maryland and preempts local governments from regulating them, removing that issue from our consideration.

Chair Berliner, also clearly moved by the dis-empowered state of taxi drivers, embraced the need to create a fairer environment for the County’s taxi drivers. After several worksessions, the Committee, with Chair Berliner and Councilmember Hucker in support, recommended amended versions of many of my proposals, along with text to create a universal dispatch in the County, in a new omnibus bill.

Taxi Meeting
Councilmember Riemer meets with taxi drivers representing the new taxi drivers’ union.

Following are several key elements of the bill:

Universal Digital Dispatch for Taxis

As taxi companies, drivers, and regulators take a fresh look at taxi regulation in light of Uber and Lyft, one emerging theme is improving taxi service by importing the features that made the new entrants so successful – smartphone apps, GPS tracking, seamless payment, consumer-friendly rating systems, and even dynamic pricing. Taxi fleets are developing or buying branded apps and upgrading their dispatch systems. In Boston, taxi companies are banding together offer a new app. A number of app startups have attempted to create “Uber for Taxis.” These include mytaxi, Curb (formerly TaxiMagic), HailO (no longer operating in the US), Easy Taxi, Flywheel, and Zoro (Canada). “Aggregation” apps have also started to appear, which provide access to a number of taxi services. ek is one recent example.

But even with great design and features, the success of any transportation service is dependent on how quickly, cheaply, and reliably a customer can get to their destination. For car services like Uber or taxis, speed is dependent on the number of cars on the road. The more cars available, the sooner a car is able to pick up a customer, on average. The challenge facing taxis is that when apps are fragmented by fleets, the customer will not get the same level of service as the fleets could provide if they were all combined on one app. To address this fragmentation, governments have begun to pursue “universal” taxi apps that would make all taxis in a jurisdiction available on one app. Chicago, Washington DC, New York City, and Los Angeles are all pursuing, in different ways, the development of a government-sanctioned universal taxi app which all taxi drivers in the jurisdiction would be required to use. This was the original idea that I proposed in my bill in October 2014, modeled after Chicago’s law.

But as I talked with stakeholders and explored this concept, I found that having the government develop one universal app was an unsatisfactory solution. It would solve the fragmentation problem within Montgomery County, but could still require a customer to download a new app each time he or she crosses a jurisdictional boundary. Especially in a region like DC, something like Uber provides a much more seamless experience.

The best result would be the development of a universal taxi protocol – a uniform specification that would allow taxi apps to share driver, passenger and fare information with each other. This could function similarly to the open source General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) and GTFS-realtime, developed by Google, which now helps many different apps, websites, and services provide information on trains and buses from hundreds of jurisdictions.

If all taxi apps could talk to each other, no matter which app a driver or customer uses, all passengers would have access to all taxis within each jurisdiction, and all drivers could receive requests from all passengers within the jurisdiction. Government bodies, rather than developing and running their own apps, would be in the more comfortable regulatory role of approving apps and requiring that all drivers use an app that makes its data available.

So I developed an alternative proposal (see pages 10-12 and 599-600 of the linked memo), which the T&E Committee accepted. The new language allows MCDOT to approve universal apps on the condition that they provide an Application Programming Interface (API) that allows other approved apps to see and dispatch the drivers using each app. All drivers would be required to use an approved app. If other jurisdictions adopt similar legislation, a standard protocol could emerge and be adopted for national, or even global, use.

Fairness for Drivers

Among other things, I am very pleased that the Committee’s bill:

  • requires DOT to create uniform model leases and affiliation agreements that cap the rents and other charges that companies can use to get payments from drivers
  • caps the credit card charge and allows drivers to choose their own credit card processing provider
  • requires that companies use a dispute resolution process culminating in binding arbitration when taking any adverse action against a driver

Reduced Operational Expenses

Councilmember Floreen’s legislation allows fleets to operate older vehicles, which is cheaper for the fleets; reduces requirements for markings; and potentially reduces insurance coverage and expenses, depending on action by the Maryland Public Service Commission (the state law requires the PSC to rule on insurance issues for TNC’s). These changes make the industry more cost competitive with TNC’s.

A Driver Co-Op

As the conversation has evolved, many drivers have expressed a desire to form a cooperative – a driver-owned taxi company. They feel that, with a sufficient number of drivers participating and universal digital dispatch, a non-profit co-op could provide competitive service at lower cost. I am excited about this idea and I have been working closely with the drivers to help connect them with available resources and to ensure that our laws support this vision.

With this goal in mind, I proposed issuing 200 new Professional Vehicle Licenses or PVL’s to individual drivers. The Committee has recommended issuing 50 new PVL’s for individual drivers in the first year followed by 50 more the second year, split between drivers and fleets (potentially including a co-op). I feel strongly that we need to allow enough new taxis to form a viable co-op in Montgomery County, and certainly if the co-op works then it will attract more drivers over time from other fleets and even from TNCs.

A Representative Commission

The T&E recommendation also includes the creation of a new Taxicab Services Commission, which would have representatives of companies, drivers, and the public, and would provide the Executive and Council with advice on setting the lease rates and other charges, and generally review the taxi industry and recommend regulatory changes every two years. Given that it has been about ten years since we last reviewed the taxi code, we will benefit from having the commission recommend changes more regularly as the industry changes rapidly around us.

Ensuring a Voice for Drivers

One crucial aspect of my proposal, for which I will seek support at full council, is the development of a system to allow drivers to voluntarily pay dues to an association or fund. Because drivers are independent contractors rather than employees they cannot collectively bargain or have mandatory dues collection for a union. Their history of exploitation, however, demonstrates that taxi drivers need a voice in their working conditions. I think that our own deliberations demonstrate that drivers are much more powerful when they have the ability to participate in the process as a collective entity, and a digital dispatch app provides a reasonable tool to accomplish that goal, using the integrated payment system.

A mechanism to pay dues could allow drivers to have ongoing representation and protection from abuse by taxi companies, pool resources to help with dispute resolution, possibly create a common benefit fund to finance retirement, life insurance and disability benefits, and enjoy a host of other benefits that are usually associated with a union.

I hope that the full County Council will agree with me that taxi drivers deserve these benefits too. Providing a mechanism for voluntary contributions would enable drivers to be more successful with their efforts.

 

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Daily Journal (June 21, 2012): Child Care, Green Fleet, Glenstone

I met with Michelle Green, the new Executive Director of the Montgomery Child Care Association. Like many families in Montgomery County, my wife and I struggle with finding quality and affordable care for our children near our home. We’ve been wait-listed at numerous facilities and we spend a huge share of our income – more than our mortgage by far – on child care. I think a lot about how families struggle with this challenge and if there are problems that the county government can solve that would boost the availability of quality affordable care.

This is why I was especially excited to meet with the Montgomery Child Care Association today. Montgomery Child Care Association has 14 locations throughout the County and they look at the child’s needs without letting finances be a barrier to accessing their services. They supplement vouchers, including the County’s Working Parents Assistance program, provide an emergency family fund, and also provide summer care.

In addition to their services, we also talked about the demands for affordable child care, licensing versus accreditation, and coming up with measurable criteria for determining quality child care services. I’m interested to hear from child care providers about their needs and am also curious to hear from other families about their experiences with finding quality child care in their neighborhoods. I think we can do more to make facilities available where providers can locate and I am looking into that issue.

In the afternoon I had a T&E Committee meeting on the county’s use of alternative fuels for its vehicle fleet. We are working to find the optimal and affordable approach to managing our vehicles and fuel that will reduce our emissions. Our county has long been a leader in this area. We also asked our excellent Department of General Services to present some ideas about how we could use our fleet management services to leverage economic development (for example, electric vehicle charging stations located in commercial districts?) and to explore how to collect better data about the fleet in order to inform our management decisions.

Next I met with Mitchell Rales along with his brother Joshua Rales and their lawyer Barbara Sears, about a museum that Mitchell and his wife are building in Potomac, called Glenstone. Mr. Rales has purchased over 100 acres of land and removed this land from residential development, instead building a word class art, architecture and landscape museum. They’ve opened the museum to the public, receiving over 10,000 visitors so far (if you have not visited, plan a few hours for a visit and you’ll never forget the experience).

The Glenstone Foundation is proposing to expand the museum using best practices for environmental management, saving trees and reducing runoff significantly from the residential development levels that would have otherwise occurred on the land (60 homes and septic systems, for example). Their “impervious” level is very low, about 15%, which basically means that only 15% of the property would generate stormwater run-off. This is much lower than residential uses and it would set a tough benchmark for institutional uses to meet.

Finally, we heard from residents at a public hearing on Glenstones’ request for plumbing.