Washington, D.C. is in many ways the ground zero for the ongoing fight to remake the taxi industry. Drivers in the nation’s capital generally own their cars, making them small businesses on wheels. They complain that the city and the D.C. Taxicab Commission don’t treat them very well. Passengers complain that the drivers, in turn, treat them horribly.
Into that mix steps Hailo, one of the more prominent e-hailing apps. To get traction in D.C., Hailo needs to convince drivers that it offers a better way of doing business. That’s why, this morning, I came upon a young man handing out, cab by cab, Hailo materials to drivers lined up outside the Washington Hilton north of Dupont Circle. He handed the literature over when asked, and it gives a peek into how, exactly, Hailo is trying to capture the hearts and minds of cabbies.
The company has only been in the city since July, but its fliers make plain that, as Hailo sees it, remaking the cab market is going to take a field campaign.
Here’s the pitch Hailo is making to drivers out in the streets:
Hailo launched in London in 2001, the product of three drivers of the city’s black cabs paired with some local entrepreneurs. It has since raised more than $50 million in funding, and is making the case to drivers that they can make more money, and make their jobs more enjoyable, by opting to use Hailo’s downloadable hailing app — even though they’ll be giving the company a cut of their collected fares.
With a click of the app, drivers can turn on "Send Me Hailo Jobs." If all goes well, they’ll be quickly paired with potential riders who have also downloaded the app. What makes driving with Hailo different, though, simply isn’t the matching capacity. It’s that it gives drivers insight into the ride market they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Cabbies can see "street demand" in their immediate area, giving them a remarkable real-time sense of how fruitful it might be to cruise a particular street or neighborhood. They can use rolling stats on their Hailo trips and view road closures and "speed traps nearby."
There’s tension between D.C. cab drivers and those from Maryland and Virginia, and Hailo is presenting itself as a friend to the former. "No non-DC taxis," goes one pledge. There are other inducements: Cabbies get $5 for no-shows, for example.
Of course, for this dynamic to work both drivers and riders need cell phones, and there, too, Hailo is eager to help. It’s offering "an exclusive deal for DC taxis." For $60 a month, drivers get a Samsung S2 with unlimited talk and text and 2.5 gigabytes of data per month.
Hailo is hosting free training sessions at its Florida Avenue office — free parking! — that was once the home to an Ethiopian cafe and has been repainted a garish yellow. Drivers not only get trained on the app, but can pick up a free smartphone mount and phone charger, gas cards and air fresheners.
Such perks are about more than Hailo simply taking care of potential partners. If it can convince cabbies that it provides a smarter way to do their jobs, then the Hailos of the world will gain needed momentum as they try to reinvent how the rest of us hire and hail cars.
I asked the Hailo worker why he was out in the field, going cab-by-cab. "We have 1,500 drivers," he said. "But there are many more to get."
Nancy Scola is a lead writer for the Washington Post’s tech blog, The Switch. Scola’s writing on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications.