Veterans of RVA roads revving to take on Uber

Veterans Cab has driven Richmonders since 1947. Can Uber drive them to the brink?

The “Oh, shit” moment came two months ago when local media reported Uber was giving Richmond customers five free rides to herald the company’s operation, recently sanctioned by the Commonwealth after months of illicit operation.

“At that point, I was a little worried,” said John Casanova, 35, operations manager at Veterans Cab. For 67 years, the local cab company had grown from a tiny flock into a fleet that now covers Central Virginia. Uber’s arrival seemed like a death knell.

But it hasn’t chimed yet.

“Hasn’t affected us. Not at all,” Casanova said about the roughly two months since Uber’s operated alongside of the cab company. “I think that goes with our longstanding history with the community. The customer service we provide.”

While Uber has the cool, Veterans Cab has the history. In fact, at least one of their drivers has been on the road somewhere around town for 67 continuous years.

“We have had a cab on the road every single day, every hour, since 1947,” said William Barrett IV, 32, who co-owns the company with his father, William Barrett III. “Snow storms, Hurricane Isabel, Christmas, Chanukah, always on.”

The growth of Uber and the like-minded Lyft, have some predicting those companies will do to traditional cab companies what digital media has done to print: rout the longstanding industry monarchs and build a technocratic democracy in its stead.

But after talking to Casanova and Barrett, you understand Veterans Cab isn’t some relic of the past set in its (dying) ways. It’s company that continues to drive amid government over-regulation that sometimes borders on the comic, watching as Uber speeds past without the hitch of rules Veterans Cab is legally bound to carry.

Despite being a Richmond tradition, Veterans Cab runs off a new, younger engine (Casanova and Barrett) who will soon outfit the company with technology that’ll make them equal to Uber. “The industry is becoming younger and younger,” Barrett said. “We’re young people. We’re vibrant people.”

“It’s not your grandfather’s cab company.”

Flock to fleet

Only in Barrett’s case, it is.

William Barrett, Jr. returned from World War II in 1945. Many vets couldn’t find decent work. “My grandfather was one of them,” Barrett said.

In 1947, Barrett Jr. started Veterans Cab with a cousin and a few war buddies. “You had a lot of companies in different industries put the name Veterans” on their business, Barrett said.

Veterans Cab 2

Veterans didn’t really take off until the 1960s. Back then, the City of Richmond regulated the number of taxicabs through the medallion system, wherein the City capped the number of legal cabs at a certain number, issuing “medallions” that were renewable, even tradable.

Built by good, old-fashioned customer service, Veterans Cab’s stellar regard in the community–which even included a full-page endorsement by a local newspaper’s editorial department1–pushed City government to give Veterans Cab more drivers. “That’s how we were able to grow,” Barrett said.

Despite the growth, Barrett’s parents didn’t want their son joining the family trade. “My parents wanted better for me,” Barrett said. “They didn’t want me at the cab company.”

So instead, Barrett went to law school at LSU, eventually traveling abroad to practice law at a Japanese firm. After returning home, Barrett worked at his father’s cab company for extra money. “There could be a future here,” he thought. “We could build this.”

At one point, Veterans Cab had 21 individual owners. Now Barrett, who’s also a board member and president of the Capital Region Taxicab Advisory Board, and his father have consolidated and taken the reins. The company’s growth potential and ability to take on Uber and Lyft (to the benefit of the customer) are hindered by just one thing.

The law.

“That’s Against the Law”

Unlike most businesses, Veterans Cab’s fees for the service it provides are written in law. It and every other other cab company operating in Richmond Region,2 must charge $2.50 for the first 1/5 mile, and $0.50 for each 1/5 mile thereafter (which works out to be $4.50 for the first mile, $2.50 per mile following that). No meager $.10 increases. No special discounts. Nothing.

Barrett said in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, gas prices spiked, but the cost of crude eventually came down. “We could have operated under what we were being allowed to charge, and we could’ve blown our competitors completely out of the water,” he said. “But we can’t do that. It’s against the law to charge less.”

Uber, on the other hand, skirts the regulation pricing and can charge what the market will bear. Uber’s current local rates: $1.50 base rate, $0.20 per minute, $1.60 per mile.

To compare: a five-mile trip would cost a Veterans Cab customer $14.50. An Uber customer would pay about $9.50.3

“That’s the problem. We can’t go down to Uber’s price,” Barrett said. “That’s against the law.”

Regulations go beyond fares. Veterans Cab (and other companies) must use vehicles with a wheelbase of 106”, a wheel size of 14”, and a curb weight of 2,900 lbs. That may not mean much to riders, but the weight requirement in particular prevents the company from using smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles like the Honda Fit, et al. “Our largest cost is fuel,” Barrett said. Uber drivers don’t have those restrictions.4

“The minimal regulations they have are nothing compared to what the standard cab company has to go through,”5 Casanova said. Even the benefit of GPS mileage tracking, which Uber drivers use to tally rates, is off the table for Veterans Cab. While drivers can use GPS for directions, Casanova said GPS data is not (yet) an accepted way to calculate mileage, as permitted by the US Department of Weights and Measures. Instead, all cabs must have a $500 meter installed and regularly inspected.

But Casanova and Barrett don’t want cab companies to shed their regulatory oversight all together. “You want to regulate the industry,” Barrett said. “You want safe drivers. You want safe vehicles.” Ultimately, they want to compete head on with Uber and Lyft with more equitable regulation.

But even if that middle ground emerges one day (Barrett isn’t optimistic that it will) Veterans Cab believes it can still stand out on the road.

Can’t do this as a job

“I rode in an Uber cab,” Barrett said. “[The app] told me eight minutes. Then it jumps to 15 minutes. Then it jumps to 30 minutes, and I can’t get a human being on the phone.”

That’s where Uber and Veterans Cab differ. Veterans Cab dispatchers are on call regularly. Soon, the cab company will release a smartphone app that’ll allow users to hail a cab digitally. “But we’ll also still continue to offer you the ability to talk to a person,” Casanova said. “We’re not going to hide behind the technology.”

Many talk of tech in terms of the rider experience, but it also affects drivers. “Not only do you [the rider] not know the driver, that driver doesn’t know who that customer is either,” Casanova said. “We hear so many horror stories of other cab companies losing drivers to attempted robberies, or what have you. If one of my drivers is in trouble, they have a panic button. My computer will turn red, and I will stop operations until I find my driver. If my driver goes missing, I will find them in minutes.” Veterans Cab couldn’t do this a decade ago.

But all the benefits of technology mean nothing compared to people Veterans Cab regularly helps. “Some of my dispatchers can look at your telephone number [and] when they pick up the phone, they know your name,” Casanova said. “They just know you by your telephone number.”

Barrett believes convenience can’t make up for customer relationships. “It’s about knowing these people on a first name basis, where they need to go, what they need to do, when they need to be there,” Barrett said. “Ms. Green has to go to church [every week]. We know she’s going to stop and get her hair done. We know this.”

Being a cabbie isn’t a way to make money. “You can’t do this as a job. You have to do this as your life.”

As someone who prides his company on its localness, Barrett wants his company to typify a former Richmond institution: Ukrop’s.

Every birthday cake he and his family have purchased has been a Ukrop’s cake. He said regardless of where you stood with them about banning alcohol sales, or not opening on Sundays, was inconsequential. “You knew they stood for something, and you knew they were local,” he said. Veterans Cab stands for something, and it will always be local.

“I see us being the Ukrop’s [of cabs],” Barrett said.

The Capital Region Taxicab Advisory Board will hold its next meeting on Thursday, October 9th at 2:00 PM at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, and will focus on how to mitigate the cab industry’s strict regulations. The meeting is open to the public.


Photos courtesy of Veterans Cab

  1. A copy of which is still kept in the Veterans Cab office. 
  2. The Capital Region Taxicab Advisory Board regulates fares in the City of Richmond, Henrico, Hanover, and Chesterfield. 
  3. Projecting the amount of time it would take to drive five miles would be eight minutes. The total cost of the 5-mile trip would fluctuate depending on how long it took. 
  4. Uber drivers must pay for their vehicles’ fuel and maintenance. 
  5. Even the attire of cab drivers is regulated by the City. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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