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The Road More Driven

How one man shook up Richmond's taxicab game -- and what's next for an industry facing its biggest threat in years.

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Tom Berck had a pretty good Friday night. No vomit, no fare runners. As one of Napoleon Taxi's longest-serving drivers, he has a reputation for having an abundance of the one thing every cab driver in Richmond must have: patience.

"A drunk person has no problem trying to aggravate a cab driver," Berck says, pulling away from Napoleon's North Side headquarters at 7:05 p.m. "And I get cut off about 70 percent more than in my normal car. You can't have road rage."

During this 12-hour shift, Berck will display patience in every situation he encounters. He helps a woman unload a trunk full of groceries and gets a 50-cent tip on a $20 fare. A squirming and hollering pile of undergrads, cradling a 24-pack of Bud Light, won't ask so much as demand that he blast Katy Perry's "Dark Horse." (His tastes lean toward Animal Collective.)

All but one trip begins and ends with a smile, even when he's just calling to tell people he's on his way.

"They can tell when you're smiling," he says.

If Berck doesn't smile at whoever gets in, there's another cab driver who will.

The Henrico Police Division, which manages the bulk of taxi industry regulation in the Richmond area, issued 834 taxi-driver permits last year. The number has grown, unlike larger cities where caps keep the barrier to entry prohibitively expensive. In New York, the rare opportunity to purchase a taxi medallion can cost buyers upwards of $1 million. In Richmond, becoming a cab owner is a matter of a background check, an easily obtainable certificate of need and a vehicle that meets code — a process that'll set you back around $40.

But even that laissez faire system is facing, to use a Silicon Valley buzzword, disruption. New ride-sharing programs accessible from your smartphone are becoming businesses valued in the billions by ignoring rules that the taxi industry has relied on for decades to stifle competition.

Traditional taxi companies that want to grow and thrive may have to compete on their own technological innovation and service with wider smiles than anything an upstart ride-share company can offer.
It's one situation in which patience could mean death. And while some cabbies are prepared to wait and see, Napoleon is preparing for battle.

 

Contrary to the groups of cabs you see around downtown hotels, that isn’t where most of the business is. But drivers are willing to wait for a high-dollar fare taking travelers to the airport. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Contrary to the groups of cabs you see around downtown hotels, that isn’t where most of the business is. But drivers are willing to wait for a high-dollar fare taking travelers to the airport.

Sitting in what could be called Napoleon Taxi's war room, Jonathan Trainum offers a glimpse of why a West End bartender christened him with the French emperor's nickname, which he gave to his company.

"My fight is against the negative connotations toward the taxi industry," says Trainum, who's 5-foot-6. "It's an ingrained thing. All you know is you call and someone's gonna pick you up — probably in a Crown Vic that's going to be clanking around. The conversation probably won't be good, the car might stink."

"These are preconceptions we try to combat," he says. "Riding a cab's not like that anymore. Our industry is progressing, and if it doesn't, it's just going to fall off. That's why Uber and Lyft have gained ground."

Those ride-sharing companies' arrival in Richmond is a question of when more than if. And while the threat is real, Trainum's near-whisper monotone displays a brazen confidence not unlike his namesake.

Six years ago Napoleon was an upstart company, launched by the Sandston native behind the wheel of one Crown Victoria. Now the company has a fleet of 32 vehicles and around 90 drivers. It's a dominant presence in the city.

"I didn't really have the image of taking over the industry, but I saw the potential to do it," Trainum says. "There was no one else out there who wanted this done correctly. Everyone else wanted to just get their cut."

Trainum, 32, got his start as a driver for the South Side-based Veterans Taxi after returning from the Navy. Veterans had been around since 1947, and Trainum loved the work. But he hated the company's well-worn practices. He chafed at the dispatcher's blatant favoritism toward certain drivers. He says he was reprimanded for making sure riders made it into their homes after dropping them off. He says it was routine for dispatchers to ignore calls from the city's public housing projects.

So Trainum struck out on his own, joined shortly after by another Veterans driver, C.B. Brevard. The lesson they took with them was simple, they say: A new cab company needed to stand out to survive.

"The city doesn't need us," Trainum says. "There are plenty of people who come in and provide a service mentality. But we need the customers. We provide a platform for them, not the other way around."

As for Veterans, it switched ownership structures three years ago, after Trainum and Brevard left, from a cooperative to a company under sole control of longtime driver William Barrett. He says he's pushed Veterans to target underserved areas and workers without cars or access to public transportation. He won't provide numbers, but says that business has tripled. He declines to talk about facing off against two former drivers.

"They're strong competitors," Barrett says, "but I have an appreciation for competition. It makes everybody better."

 

Tom Berck has driven Napoleon cabs since 2010. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tom Berck has driven Napoleon cabs since 2010.

Berck usually works day shifts — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He's been with Napoleon for four years, which means he's among the most senior drivers and has earned the right to pick up the lucrative Friday night slot, where the driver's share can average $300. Tonight, he's giving a lesson on not only the ins and outs of cab driving in Richmond, but also the specific guidelines followed by Napoleon drivers intended to separate them from the competition.

First lesson: This is Richmond. Deodorizer is a must.

"People don't shower every day," Berck says. "And we let people smoke."

Marlboro 27s are Berck's only release throughout the 12 hours he spends in his Dodge Caravan. He gets out for less than two minutes around 3 a.m. to buy a granola bar from a 7-Eleven in Carytown. He doesn't go to the bathroom, ever. Time is money, and it takes a lot of hustle to eek out a few hundred bucks a shift.

Everything generally is split down the middle. The metered fares, set by the city, are $2.50 for the first one-fifth of a mile, and 50 cents for each one-fifth mile after. Cab drivers split the fares and gas costs with Napoleon; the tips belong to them. Those gratuities can make the difference between making a living and barely making rent.

In a city lacking extensive public transportation options, passengers who rely on cabs are as varied as the people of Richmond. They're tourists, wage workers who can't afford cars, seniors going to doctors' appointments and partiers too sloshed to get themselves home safely.

Most of them aren't hanging out at downtown hotels or Richmond International Airport, where you'll find lines of cabs waiting. So why are they there?

Of the more than 400 cabs darting around the city, many of them are single-car operations that rely on those high-dollar fares during the week, and camp out in Shockoe Bottom on weekends.

The way Trainum saw it, the everyday riders who were looking to get to work weren't getting the service they needed. The potential business was right there waiting because other cab drivers decided they couldn't afford the trips.

"They feel like being cautious is the way to be successful," Trainum says. "We threw caution to the wind a little bit. A lot of the grunge kids in the Fan don't tip. They're heading to work, they can't afford to tip."

For those kinds of riders, getting the drivers to them also relieved a burden, he says: "You can't tally up how much of an impact you're having on someone's life by taking that off of them."

Trainum made it a mission to be able to get wherever customers from wherever they were and take them wherever they need to go.

At his 6,000-square-foot facility on Wickham Street, he built a dispatch center that rivals the capabilities of the National Security Agency. Seven screens display a map of the city, showing where calls are coming in, and where 32 cabs are at any given moment. The origin and destination of every trip from every caller has been stored to help speed things up.

On Friday, Berck never needs to scan the sidewalks hoping to find a fare. Instead, a tablet hooked to his dash has him moving constantly between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., crossing the city again and again while he accepted fares as far out as Midlothian and as close as the two-minute drive between Mosaic off River Road and the University of Richmond.

The technology can be brutally efficient for the driver, even though it can still mean 90-minute waits for customers.

While daylight fades, Berck's fares transition from errands into various stages of a night on the town. It's these customers who seem most effusive about Napoleon. Several of them give unprompted testimonials while they stumble into the van.

"They have the technology," one manages to say. "They're the most prompt, they give realistic arrival times. Y'all are legit."

 

Keys turned in by cabbies don’t stay on a rack long at Napoleon, which tries to keep its fleet of 32 cars on the road 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Keys turned in by cabbies don’t stay on a rack long at Napoleon, which tries to keep its fleet of 32 cars on the road 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

From the beginning, Uber and Lyft have been different. Uber, the larger of the two ride-sharing services, launched in 2010 as the brainchild of two San Francisco Web developers — without cab experience or even Crown Victorias.

Relying on universal dissatisfaction with cabs and smartphone app development, the company has stormed into cities around the world with an innovative and industry-threatening way of doing business. The company enlists drivers after a background check to use their own personal vehicles, without any type of cab permit. Then it connects them with customers through an app that tracks driver locations in real time. On the other end, customers can choose any driver they want, provide credit-card information in advance and simply walk out of the car when they get where they're going.

Taxi regulations have been around about as long as automobiles, and the new company has pushed against regulatory concerns in many of the dozens of cities it has entered in the past four years. The taxi industry, which in many cities long has been ruled by market caps, has worked diligently to make clear that its umbrage is not just with competition.

Instead, they say, not adhering to regulations makes riders less safe. The background checks prepared by ride-sharing companies aren't as rigorous as the ones at traditional taxi companies, and drivers aren't buying insurance that protects passengers.

The Maryland-based Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association has launched what it calls a public safety campaign called Who's Driving You to raise awareness about both issues.

"Life is dangerous enough," association spokesman Dave Sutton says. "Why would you want to hop into a taxi without adequate insurance?"

In June, London taxi drivers went on strike. Parisian taxis barricaded a highway. In Maryland, cab companies sued Uber earlier this month. And Washington cabbies went on strike a few weeks ago only to find a backlash in favor of Uber.

Napoleon Taxi's dispatch center uses GPS to monitor cab locations across the city. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Napoleon Taxi's dispatch center uses GPS to monitor cab locations across the city.

George Mason University transportation-policy professor Jonathan Gifford is among the company's fans.

"Uber is giving competition to an industry that hasn't seen much competition," Gifford says. "The role of public policy is not to protect incumbent businesses, but ensure public safety. If someone comes in with a new mousetrap, then I think they should be allowed to do it."

But Uber and Lyft's legal operation in Virginia has been bumpy. Both have encountered issues dropping off passengers in Virginia after picking them up in Washington, where they're allowed to operate. Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles sent a cease and desist letter in early June that ordered all activity to stop. The parties have since come to the table, with Uber and Lyft applying for some of the proper licenses late last month.

Lyft says it has no plans to operate in Richmond. Uber appears ready to pounce.

"Uber aspires to be in every city around the world where current transportation options fall short of meeting consumer demand, and we're always exploring which city will be next," spokeswoman Taylor Bennett says. "We have heard from residents, visitors and drivers in Richmond that they are excited for Uber to come to town."

Bennett wouldn't say when that might be, but the reaction from Richmond's taxi industry so far has been a mix of shrugging it off and digging in for a fight. Asked about Uber and Lyft, Barrett at Veterans recalls having heard of Uber once.

"There's a whole lot of issues that put it in a gray area right now," he says. He says he isn't worried as long as "we continue to move forward like we have and become more efficient."
Napoleon's Brevard says that's too lackadaisical of an attitude for an enemy as powerful as a company causing international unrest.

"This is why Uber became popular nationally," Brevard says. "In a lot of other cities, the fleet owners were protected because they couldn't see any new competition. They didn't have to make any investments. Uber created competition for them and they're behind the ball now. Uber has a much better way for customers to reach out and find taxicabs in those markets."

Napoleon's answer to Uber is to beat it at its own game. Napoleon has been building an app for months and expects to have it ready by the fall. Trainum says combining real-time tracking with a cash payment option easily should deflect the Uber threat. A service such as Uber may work for Boston, he says, but the cash clientele that Napoleon makes its money on isn't going to be calling the company any time soon.

"You're telling people the only way you can get a cab is through a smartphone app with a credit card," Trainum says. "[Uber's] customers fit that niche. We want to take the technology they're using [and] open it up where we can provide service for everybody."

The app won't just be for Napoleon. Trainum says he'll make it available to any Richmond cab company willing to use it. The industry is worth defending collectively, he says.

"The next five years for Napoleon is us trying to counteract complacency in our industry," Trainum says, "which has been exposed by Uber and Lyft."

And while Trainum says he's working to make Napoleon just as technologically savvy as ride-sharing companies, he fears that ride-sharing companies siphoning off the most lucrative customers could affect everyone else looking for rides. Not subscribing to the laws that come with a taxi-driver permits means an Uber driver isn't obligated to pick someone up.

"These companies are coming in and throwing the standards out the window, and saying, 'We need you to trust us in securing your transportation,'" he says. "The taxi industry is regulated in such a way that we have to go and pick you up. You're going to receive transportation."

 

C.B. Brevard joined Jonathan Trainum as vice president of Napoleon shortly after the company started. “When I first became a cab driver I thought I’d be doing this for a couple months,” Brevard says. “That was 10 years ago.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • C.B. Brevard joined Jonathan Trainum as vice president of Napoleon shortly after the company started. “When I first became a cab driver I thought I’d be doing this for a couple months,” Brevard says. “That was 10 years ago.”

Providing that kind of service makes for slim margins. Napoleon brought in more than $2 million in 2013, while only $80,000 could be considered profit after the expense of keeping 32 cars on the road at all hours.

The risk Trainum talks about isn't just a matter of gas and tolls cutting into the bottom line. Serving everyone means unknown risks. A Napoleon driver has been robbed only once — the suspect later caught because of the video-camera system installed in each vehicle.

In May, that same system witnessed another driver pull up to a place on St. James Street at 1:30 a.m. When a black SUV rolled by, eight gunshots rang out, most puncturing his windshield. The driver switched from singing along to the radio to shouting, speeding away until a police car found him a few seconds later. Aside from shards of glass lodged in his face, the driver was fine. But he switched to the day shift.

It was the first such incident in Napoleon's history, an anomaly in thousands of hours of driving around the city.

As Berck logs his 200th mile on this recent Friday night, it's a cab driver's version of normal. But the risks become clear.

Berck picks up a couple he assumes is drunk after their phone conversation, but turns out to be heavily accented new Richmond residents hailing from Glasgow. He rescues a pair of hopelessly blotto men from an East End pub who give him an $18 tip on a $7.50 fare. And by 3:30 a.m. he's pulling up to a woman in the West End who informs him that she's totally over 21st birthdays.

There are always surprises. Just after the sun circles back, Berck picks up one last fare from a Shockoe Bottom bar. It's supposed to be one customer headed to the Fan. But he finds two people waiting, with one saying he wants to go to Midlothian.

He's the only customer all night who gives off a strange vibe. He seems drunk, or high, or maybe both. After a half-hour trek to the middle-of-nowhere Midlothian, the guy says he left his wallet downtown. He asks if he can run into his place and grab a check.

"I'm supposed to call the police," Berck tells him. This routine has happened too many times. But Berck lets him go.

At $47, it was supposed to be the biggest fare of the night. Instead, it's an hour's work, with tolls and gas disappeared. When Berck goes to cash the check, it bounces.

But he takes solace in having gotten the guy home safely, he says — Napoleon's overarching mission. And when he tried to cash the check again, it went through.

"I even got that $5 tip the guy promised me," Berck says. "It's funny how this job will crush your faith in humanity, and then restore your faith in humanity." S

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