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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

How a Durham taxi driver survives in the age of Uber and Lyft: personal service

It’s 9:13 a.m., and Ashraf Yousif, 43, is parked on Chapel Hill Road in Durham’s Best Cab Co.’s taxi #100. After an hour of waiting, he gets a request on his phone from an address he immediately recognizes. A student at Jordan High School. “He probably missed the bus,” he says.

Ash, as he prefers to go by, has been working as a taxi driver in Durham since 2005, after he immigrated from Sudan in 2004. He loves being part of people’s lives, a member of their community.

“You know everybody, find out everything. Who is pregnant, where people are traveling,” he says with a smile as we pull up to the rider’s address seven minutes later. A young man wearing a bright blue Duke hoodie and a backpack steps out—sure enough, he is the high schooler late for class that Ash had expected. He knows the boy’s parents, (“They’re Yemeni.”) and knows that they prefer their son take rides from a driver they trust, rather than, say, call an Uber.

This may be how the taxi business can survive in the age of Uber and Lyft.

Like other taxi companies, Durham’s Best Cab Co. has suffered from the rising popularity of ride-share apps. In the last five years, the company has gone from having over 60 taxi cabs to 31, and had to create their own app for calling and scheduling rides in order to keep up with the technological culture shift. Cab companies like Durham’s Best have found their niche by providing personal service to populations that desire special attention, such as immigrant families and young teens.

Today, prospects for the taxi industry across the country are bleak, but Ash’s dedication to his local immigrant community have allowed him to maintain success as a driver in Durham even after a few difficult years.

In order to stay in business, the company also had to take more serious measures to cut costs and stay afloat. “For two weeks, we were about to close,” Ash said, but then they outsourced their dispatcher system in 2015 and ended up saving thousands of dollars per month. Customers like the Jordan High student make survival possible.

A shift in customer demographics

Taxis still have unique appeal for families and seniors, largely because these groups tend to be more cautious about who they get into a car with.

“If you need to send your kids to school, or if you’re traveling somewhere and leaving your house empty for two weeks, you want to be in the car with someone you know you can trust, because you never know what can happen,” Ash says.

Since Uber launched its first smartphone app in 2010 (then named UberCab), there have been questions raised about how well the company can guarantee safety for its drivers and riders. The company’s image has been hurt by incidents of sexual harassment, drunk customers, and even scamming by drivers abusing the system. Ash and Durham’s Best say they offer a safe and friendly alternative for customers who might be particularly worried about their safety.

Uber has been a classic “disrupter” to the taxi business. Its presence in cities around the U.S. resulted in a fall in income of around 10 percent among taxi drivers and chauffeurs, though it has had a worse impact in certain locations. Los Angeles saw Uber and its younger competitor Lyft “deal a swift, brutal blow to the Los Angeles taxi industry.”

Ash, by catering to late-snoozing high school students, immigrant families, and cautious seniors, seems to be a survivor.

He has a wife and two young boys, and just got an IT certification as a systems administrator from My Computer Career, a computer training school in Raleigh. He says he got the highest grade point average in his class, and also had perfect attendance.

Back in Sudan, he obtained a law degree, and though he misses the practice he knows he will never be able to work as a lawyer in America because of the language barrier and difference in legal systems. He likes being a taxi driver, especially because of the flexibility it gives him and his family, since he can adapt his schedule to ensure that someone is always home to care for the kids.

He works every day of the week, but he spends a lot of that time in parking lots, waiting. It’s now 9:45 a.m., and he’s in another lot after having dropped off the Jordan student.

Not just a company, but a community of immigrants

Durham’s Best Cab Co. has its roots in Sudan. Most drivers and shareholders are also Sudanese, as the company was founded in 1999 by a group of immigrants from the North-African country who were working for ABC Cab Company and decided to start their own taxi service.

Ash belongs to a wave of Sudanese immigrants that poured into the United States between 2000 and 2010. The company’s founders arrived during an earlier surge between 1990 and 2000, when the state’s foreign-born population more than tripled.

Ash says Arab communities tend to be tight-knit and supportive, so it was natural place to start working at Durham’s Best shortly after he moved to North Carolina with his family.

Now, he is one of the company’s 31 shareholders, 15 of which are also drivers. If they are not from Sudan, they’re from Egypt, Morocco, or Syria. “The cultures are all so close. There are differences but it still feels like we are all at home, with the same traditions, the same religion.”

Finding stability in Durham

Ash is happy knowing that his customers trust him. They could be paying less for Uber but will pay the extra few dollars as long as he’s in the driver’s seat.

“This city is beautiful,” he says, looking the windshield at the color-changing trees. It is a chilly Friday in Durham, but the sun has emerged after several days of rain, and only a few slim clouds line the bottom of the bright blue sky.

He doesn’t seem to mind that his shift has been going for two hours, and he has only given one 10-minute ride that earned him less than twenty dollars. He says that Fridays are always particularly slow, but business picks up when it’s raining, when it’s extremely cold, or whenever there’s an event or festival.

Still, for all of its waiting and uncertainty, he loves this job. He does it because to him, Durham’s Best Cab Co. “is like a family,” and he is a valued member of that family, trusted with ensuring customers’ safety and comfort, assuring they make it to class – or wherever – on time.

At 10:52 a.m., Ash gets another ride request. He doesn’t recognize the address this time, but he knows how to get there.

Durham offering free bus rides to vote in midterm elections

Durham voters who still need to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s elections can get a free bus ride to the polls.

For the second straight year, GoDurham buses will be free while the polls are open, from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

The fare-free service was supposed to be approved during a City Council meeting Monday night, but a power outage at City Hall postponed the meeting until Thursday.

City Manager Thomas Bonfield told the 9th Street Journal that he approved the free service for Tuesday and the City Council will confirm it Thursday at his direction.

Scooters coming to Durham, but questions linger

A scooter swarm will soon be coming to Durham.

After weeks of deliberations, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to regulate the use of motorized scooters Monday night. At least 100 Bird scooters will hit the streets once the company receives permits—although there could be more.

“It always depend on the size of city,” said Servando Esparza, senior manager of government relations for Bird. “Our deployments and growth are based on demand.”

Residents can “realistically” expect to be able to ride scooters in 2019, transportation planner Bryan Poole told the Durham Herald-Sun.

Many questions still have to be worked out, though.

Esparza couldn’t give a definitive answer on whether Bird would be able to accept Faith ID’s—identification for undocumented, Spanish-speaking residents, provided by

El Centro Hispano, a local Hispanic advocacy and social services organization.

That frustrated council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who said he had pushed Bird representatives for an answer to that question during the council’s work session Oct. 4.

“This council was very concerned the accessibility of the scooters, and ID was one of those factors that could curtail access. A lot of people don’t have driver’s licenses,” Middleton said.

Esparza also said that he couldn’t give an estimate on when he would be able to provide the council with an answer. The ordinance does not have a requirement that permittees accept certain forms of identification.

“We have to continue to push vendors to make scooters as accessible as possible,” said council member Charlie Reece.

Companies will be required to drop a “sufficient number” of scooters within “low and moderate income areas…as defined in the permit.” The city will also require companies to accept diverse payment types, including methods for those without smartphones or credit cards.

There also had been controversy about whether scooters would be defined as mopeds under North Carolina law, but that was not resolved by the new ordinance.

Scooters may be deemed mopeds, which would require them to have license plates, lights and rearview mirrors. Bird and Lime bikes do not have rearview mirrors or license plates, but they do have lights.

The ordinance was changed to define the scooters as “‘vehicles’ (without reference to mopeds).”

However, it still requires the companies to “comply with applicable local, state and federal laws, including state equipment and registration requirements.”

Senior City Attorney Fred Lamar says that it is up to the state, not the city,  to regulate vehicle use on the roadways.

“We have not heard anything definitively from the DMV,” Lamar said. “There are lawyers that don’t think it’s a moped.”

The ordinance requires that riders wear helmets.

But it’s not clear how much the police will actually enforce that provision or any other aspect of the law. The police department said in a statement that it will “address violations of the law that present an obvious and immediate risk to public safety.

Addressing violations may entail notice to the Transportation Department so that it may pursue civil penalties against the business owners/operators,” the statement read

However, since scooter riders aren’t required to carry a license, the police department is limited in the type of citations it could issue. The statement continued, “ … the Police Department does not anticipate being the primary agent for the regulation of these devices.”

Although Durham’s ordinance only requires that scooter drivers be 16 years old, Bird’s policies require drivers to be 18 years old. The ordinance leaves the decision for any age requirement above 16 up to the company, Poole said—a policy Bird does not plan on changing, Esparza said, noting that in most cities, the age requirement is 18.  

The new ordinance also attempts to address the piles of scooters that may be left behind—something painfully familiar to what the city saw with Lime and Spin bikes. Companies will be required to move their scooters before they are parked in the same spot for 72 hours.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission noted in a Sept. 18 letter that the Transportation Department is planning to create designated parking spots for shared bikes and scooters.

The city will charge $1,000 for companies to apply for permits and will charge $100 per shared scooter that hits the streets. It also will charge $50 for electric-assisted bikes and $25 for bikes that aren’t blessed with electric assistance.

In Durham, protecting the bears and wolves from Hurricane Florence

Correction, Sept. 17: This story has been corrected to clarify that the museum has four red wolves, not two as originally reported.

Only a few at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham remember when Hurricane Fran hit: three staff members, a couple of turtles, and Misha the red-tailed hawk.

The morning after that 1996 storm, animal caretaker Sherry Samuels returned to the museum to find fences for several enclosures crushed by fallen trees and the bear house filled with water.

“I swam down a road rather than walked down a road. It was that much water,” she said.

The museum had no power, and only a fraction of the staff got to work that day.

The staffers who made it sprang into action. They drained the flooded enclosure and fed warm apples to the shivering bears.

Now, Samuels is the director of the animal department, and she’s leading the museum’s preparation for Hurricane Florence.

When the first forecasts showed Florence heading toward the Carolinas last weekend, staffers at the museum made 80 sandbags to stack in front of areas that might flood. They stocked shelves, inventoried medicines and began planning what to do with the animals.

Virginia, pictured here, and other bears at the Museum of Life and Science should fare better in this weekend’s storm because of lessons from Hurricane Fran in 1996. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Life and Science)

“There are wonderful things about living in captivity: You get access to health care and food, but you don’t have space or the same choice, and in extreme weather, space and choice is critical,” she said.

Samuels said that this time around, the four black bears will be locked in their house. The lemurs and farm animals will also be kept indoors.

The museum’s four red wolves – two adults and their two juvenile pups – are her primary concern. They’re part of a breeding program to conserve the critically endangered species native to the southeast.

“The wolves are really nervous, shy animals, so it’s always a judgment call of whether to leave them where they are or crate them up and bring them inside, which is very stressful on the wolves and people,” Samuels said.

Before the storm hits, she’ll have to decide if they’ll stay in their six-acre enclosure or come inside.

When designing its new Explore the Wild exhibit to house the bears and wolves, the museum took into account lessons learned from Hurricane Fran.

The bear house was built on a site three feet higher, and the drains were revamped to better control flooding.

“Everything — from procedures to protocols to training to infrastructure — is all better now,” Samuels said. “Does that mean we’re going to ride out the storm and not have any issues? No, each storm has a life of its own, but we can try to prepare.”

Fearing power outages, Durham residents rush to library for old-school entertainment

“Tennessee,” a guide on the state’s attractions by Margaret Littman more than 500 pages thick, was at the top of Jeffrey Petrou’s stack of books as he left the Southwest branch of the Durham County Library Tuesday evening.

“In case we’re evacuating to Tennessee,” Petrou, a local entrepreneur, said when asked why he chose the book.

With the threat of power outages this weekend due to Hurricane Florence, a steady parade of Durham bookworms followed Petrou out of the library with their own stacks Tuesday evening. Most chose books more for pleasure than practicality.  

Real estate advisor Kelsey Berland chose 10 books, mostly novels, to prepare for a possible power outage.

Real estate advisor Kelsey Berland, 42, carried 10 books out of the library, saying she sought out “fluffy” page-turners like mysteries and true crime stories, including the late Michelle McNamara’s new book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” But she was most excited to open up Tom Hanks’ “Uncommon Type,” a collection of lighthearted short stories that all involve an antique typewriter — and yes, that Tom Hanks.

“I’ll go volunteer if I need to, but otherwise, it’s like, ‘Nope, I’ve got all my books at home,’” Berland said. “Somebody was telling me you should be ready for up to seven days of no power.” She seemed confident her 10-book stockpile would be enough.

Stacks of books even taller than Bertrand’s were common. Some patrons toted full bags of books in both hands to feed the whole family. Durham School of the Arts eighth grader Theo Reeves was weighed down by the stack of 17 he lugged alongside his mother.

The middle schooler came just to get the next novel in the series he is reading, “Darke” by Angie Sage. But he decided it was better to be safe than sorry and emptied the shelves of everything interesting he could find.

Retired talk radio producer Mona Gauthier followed the Reeves family out with just one paltry book, the detective novel “Nine Dragons” by Michael Connelly, and felt the need to justify her scarce supply.

Mona Gauthier chose a new detective novel to keep herself occupied.

“I already have five books at home,” she said. “I’m going to make sure I don’t get bored.”

Inside, librarian Larry Daniels said regulars were calling the front desk, wanting to renew their books for a little bit longer.

Thunder rumbled outside. A young boy shouted, “I can tell the hurricane is coming,” and ran out the door with his parents chasing after him.

The rain held off as the real storm swirled off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean. The boy was ready with a book in each hand.