For Durham's Best Cab Company, a ringing phone means business. A night-shift dispatcher swivels in his chair and answers with the calm of an emergency responder: "Durham taxi, where are you going? .... Be about five minutes." The caller needs a ride from the BP gas station on Hillsborough Road. The dispatcher types the pick-up location into TaxiCaller, which alerts the closest unoccupied driver via Tablet. He has barely finished sending the job before the phone rings again.
Durham's Best represents the city's largest fleet of taxis. Last year, the cab company celebrated 15 years of ringing phones, crackling radios and ticking meters. Wedged between a storefront church, a family health practice, and an Islamic center on West Chapel Hill Street, the company's yellow brick facade stays lit all hours, a gold tooth in a square-jawed grin. Inside the office, maps of Duke campus and Durham County adorn the walls, alongside a glittering picture of Mecca thronged with pilgrims.
Last year, Durham's Best replaced its antiquated two-way radios with an electronic dispatch system, easing communication between dispatcher and drivers. The summer months are characteristically slow for the company, but business tends to ramp up when the local college students return. Last August, however, the company hit a speed bump: Rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft had launched in the Triangle.
"We've been waiting all the summer to recover," says Husam Hasanin, co-founder and current president of Durham's Best. "It was not what we expected."
Drivers began waiting three or four hours between rides, sometimes getting only a handful of customers during their eight-hour shifts. By September, Durham's Best received almost half as many calls, according to Hasanin. "If you don't have calls, you definitely don't have money," he says.
From the moment it launched in the Triangle, Uber quickly attracted smartphone-users. "We received an incredible response from riders and drivers—people were thrilled to finally have more transportation choice," says Taylor Bennett, communications lead for Uber in eastern North America. He says Raleigh has been one of the tech company's fastest growing cities. Uber is now operating in 10 cities in North Carolina.
Durham's Best staff has noticed a drop in calls from Duke students, who have historically accounted for a bulk of their clientele. "The amount of business is not enough," says Ali, 44, who has worked for the company for 14 years.
In the event Uber eventually overpowers the cab business, they wonder who will be left to answer customers without smart phones. "I think in the end it's going to create a situation where underprivileged people are not getting the service because they don't have a credit card or a smartphone," says Hasanin. "We are required by the city to be up for 24 hours and to serve the whole city."
The dispatcher, who asked that he not be named, has a shaved head, a thick, well-kept beard and coal-dark eyes. Besides dispatching three or four nights a week, he also drives cab No. 10. The company's 53 drivers refer to each other by the digits displayed on their vehicles, like basketball players called by their jersey numbers.
When he joined Durham's Best eight years ago, he used to do homework in his cab between customers. Back then he was getting a master's in pharmaceutical sciences at North Carolina Central University, and he needed a job with flexible hours. A friend told him about Durham's Best, so he applied for a job.
"You made $250 easy, a day," he remembers. "You're your own boss. I could study when I wanted to, work when I wanted." Like the dispatcher, many of the other drivers have had some college education.
Before 1999, the only taxi service in Durham was ABC Cab Company). A few ABC drivers thought the community needed another service, so they split off and formed a new franchise, dubbing it Durham's Best. "We wanted to be the best company," says Hasanin. "That was our dream."
The men recruited others and soon the group grew to 15, then 30 drivers, primarily immigrants from north and northeast Africa. Many of them purchased shares in the company.
"This company helped establish a lot of families. It helped raise a lot of kids; it helped put a lot of kids through school," says the dispatcher who is originally from Sudan. Most of his colleagues are married with children, and driving a cab is their main source of income. Some send portions of their income to families back home in Algeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iraq and Morocco.
There are 168 cabs registered and licensed in the City of Durham, plus 20 other passenger vehicles for hire (including limos, shuttles and para-transits).
Gracie Chamblee, who administers the passenger vehicle for hire program for Durham's transportation department, says she receives calls daily from cab drivers asking how the city is regulating Uber and Lyft.
Two recent callers complained that Uber drivers were "lining up at Shooters Nightclub like taxicabs on Wednesday through Saturday nights," she noted in a recent email.
Chamblee can't help them, however, because of the Regulatory Reform Act, HB 74, which state lawmakers passed in 2013. The bill prohibits the cities from regulating digital dispatchers. "We don't want to break the law ourselves," she says.
On its website, Uber defines itself as "a request tool, not a transportation carrier." In other words, as a technology company, it can skirt the rules required of taxis and other passenger-vehicles for hire.
State Sen. Mike Woodard, whose district includes part of Durham, says it's likely the legislature will consider a bill regarding digital dispatch companies like Uber and Lyft during this session. "We're doing some more research and thinking through what options we might have," he says. "It is an issue that's been raised by local governments, by cab companies, and of course by the digital transportation firms as well. Obviously all these different players want to protect their interest in the discussion."
At peak hours, Uber's prices surge (last Halloween, a man was charged $455 for a 15-mile trip from Durham to Chapel Hill). Cab rates, conversely, are set by the city. "From the homeless, we take him to the shelter, to [the] CEO, we take him to the airport," says Raja Assaf, 55, a Durham's Best driver from Jordan. He says during last year's winter storm, he was the only cab still operating in Durham.
Charlene's Safe Ride, which also operates in Durham, is taking the can't-beat-em, join-em tack. Bell Belahouel, the company's manager, has been encouraging his drivers to sign up to drive for Uber as well. "We like the new technology," he says. "If you call Uber you [might] get a Charlene's Safe Ride driver."
Durham's Best drivers are unconvinced. "We're worried about the safety of the customer," says Hasanin. "The people in charge have to do something. The way it's going now, it's gonna be a problem. We should work ahead before the problem happens.
"The playing field is not even," Hasanin adds. "We have people working in the office for six, seven years, and those people are gonna lose their jobs."
As technologies like Uber raise questions about job security for taxi drivers, passenger safety and transparency, Durham's Best staff says something larger is at stake. Some drivers think of themselves as round-the-clock guardians of Durham's citizens; ambassadors to the stranger and protectors of those in need. They fetch tired travelers from the airport, deliver tipsy students safely to their dorms, and ferry passengers as far as Virginia, New York and Georgia.
"We serve the real citizens who're going to work, going to Food Lion," says Ali. "We deal with older people, blind, poor, rich. We serve every person."
Atif, who drives for the company, says he'll give someone a lift even when he knows "for a fact that they don't have 30 cents." He recounts one time when he helped a blind man to the VA hospital. "One day, God forbid, if I become like that, someone will take care of me," he says. "We don't look at our clients as a dollar sign. We are Doctor Zhivago."
For now, Durham's Best drivers are trying to counter their new multibillion-dollar competition from the storefront office. They created their own mobile app, as well as a texting service.
"We are here to help people," says Asaf. And make a living while they're at it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Check engine light"