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Flash: North Is Now North, Even in D.C.

For decades, while the rest of the planet agreed on the notion that north is up and south is down, the District government insisted that north is west, or left, or something. The idea, I suppose, was to add to the mystery and lore of the D.C. taxi system, with its strangely shaped zones, its uniquely meterless fare system, its wonderful array of cabs of all decades, and its fabulously overeducated drivers (my current recordholder is a guy from Eritrea who had two PhDs and escaped from a civil war by foot.)

Now comes the Fenty administration with all kinds of wacky ideas about making city services comprehensible and efficient. That entails the first new taxi zone map since FDR ran the place. It's a cool, clean look, now with actual street names on the map, and north is, amazingly, up. Of course, this isn't in the actual taxis yet--it has to be approved by the taxi commission, which has been busy debating the meters vs zones concept for approximately 47 years. (Just last week, in fact, the commission spent some time checking out Study #674 on the merits of a meter system.)

I am utterly retrograde when it comes to the zone system and I will defend it to its death, which always seems to be coming soon to a perfectly workable taxi system near you. (The gist of my argument, from a 2002 column, appears on the jump.)

Fenty, like Williams before him, is putting some friendly faces on the taxicab commission. Williams did this in an eventually losing attempt to sabotage the zone system. Will Fenty's nominees fare any better? Joe Sternlieb is a veteran of city politics who has an excellent reputation and is unlikely to be unduly influenced by the taxi companies or other big players in the field. Dale Leibach, husband of ex-council member Kathy Patterson, is similarly highly regarded.

But what all involved need to understand is that there are some powers higher than logic and efficiency, and while a meter system might indeed be easier for fleet owners to track and might make life simpler for tax collectors and might even be kinder to tourists, the fact remains that the zone system encourages frequent use of cabs for short hops downtown and encourages maintenance of a large fleet of cabs, which is essential to having hailable cabs--something that doesn't exist in most midsized cities.

Fixing the maps is a terrific move. Now, leave the zone system alone.

Quiz time: Which is more attractive, a Washington cab ride in which a downtown trip is $5 no matter how bad the traffic, or a New York-style ride in which your fare grows more astronomical for every minute you sit in gridlock?

It's a no-brainer, but the push to flip the District's taxicabs from our unique, 70-year-old zone fare system to metered fares is a bad idea that simply refuses to die.

This is a supremely strange bit of activism on the part of Mayor Tony Williams and some of his big donors.

The argument for meters is that they would cut down on overcharging, improve service to outlying neighborhoods and make fares more "equitable" -- read more "expensive."

Who favors meters: the mayor, big business and the companies that want to take over Washington's cab industry.

The opposition: taxi drivers and customers.

What's wrong with this picture?

The zone system is the best incubator of small business owners in any American city. The District's system supports more cabs per resident than any other U.S. city -- 6,200 taxis. (New York City has just twice as many cabs to serve 14 times as many people.)

If the zone system were so tough on drivers, we wouldn't have so many of them. Yet people still line up to take the licensing exam, and the drivers I talked to at the hacks' favorite hangout, the Columbia Road 7-Eleven in Adams Morgan, are all for zones.

"When we got our hack licenses, we knew we would have the zone system," says Walter Kim, who's been driving a Dial cab for 18 years. "Drivers are in love with this system, and even tourists are kind of delighted when they learn about it. It's easy to understand and much better for the customer: A meter runs during traffic and red lights. The zone fare is the fare, period."

Kim, like the vast majority of Washington cabbies, owns his taxi and runs his own life. That helps make our system the envy of the industry.

"When I came back from the Army after World War II, there were so many veterans looking for work, so I started doing this," says Wallace Robinson, now in his 55th year hacking the city's streets. Robinson, 85, credits the zone system with granting him a life of independence and reasonable comfort.

Metered fares might be higher, but, Robinson says, "the driver will end up making less, because people will think twice before taking a cab that's more expensive."

Scholars point to Washington as the shining example of how taxis should work: moderate prices; open access to new waves of immigrants; and a generally satisfied public. Sure, there are inconveniences. The zone maps stink. And some people don't like it when cabbies pick up multiple passengers, but that seems a small price to pay for plentiful taxis at reasonable prices.

A Portland State University study recommends that Portland switch to our system because zones are "particularly helpful to tourists who are vulnerable to circuitous route taking." Zone fares, the authors said, "reduce customer uncertainty, and would be particularly valued by regular and low income users."

In Transportation Quarterly, Bruce Schaller and Gordon Gilbert write that the sharp deterioration of New York's taxi service stems from the decline in owner-operated cabs. That's exactly what would happen here if we switch to meters, because the easy record keeping made possible by meters encourages big companies to enter the market, hiring drivers who make less money and have less investment in providing good service.

The District argues that meters will cut down on overcharging. Nonsense: New York's taxi commission says more than 40 percent of the meters it tested were set above the approved rates. Studies in Washington show less than half as much overcharging.

Washington's system is so simple, overcharging is nearly impossible on the short-haul trips most visitors take. What could be easier than a flat rate?

The mayor wants driving a taxi to become more of a privilege -- precisely the wrong direction to go.

The city has done a fine job in recent years of pushing up standards for taxis. Five years ago, air-conditioned cabs were rare. Now, they're commonplace. Five years ago, cabs were aged and creaking. Now, many are new. Enough reform. The mayor should quit back-seat driving and hail a cab.

By Marc Fisher |  March 1, 2007; 8:41 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I don't have a problem with the zone system per se, but I do think that it needs to be explained better inside taxis. The new zone map is a good start, and it's wonderful that it is much easier to read. I would also like to see a legible copy of the zone to zone fare chart (e.g., I don't remember off the top of my head how many zones it is from 3C to 1A, but there's a nifty chart that will tell me). The only times I've seen it in cabs, it's too small to actually read. Similarly a PDA program that allows rapid calculations, like the calculator on their website.

An additional reform that would be helpful is spot checks of taxis. Having inspectors taking cab rides to ensure that people are not being overcharged would, I think, go a long way toward ensuring that taxis are not overcharging.

Finally, as a question, what recourse do I have if a taxi overcharges me. Many of my trips are one zone trips, so I know what the fare is supposed to be (with appropriate adjustments for passengers, bags, and rush hour). Sometimes cabs charge me more. Do I get into a yelling match with the cabbie to save a couple bucks? My method so far has been to set the amount I'm giving the driver including tip, and give that amount regardless of the "charge" I'm quoted. I'm just waiting for the driver who "charges" more than my pre-calculated ride + tip.

Posted by: Brian | March 1, 2007 9:26 AM

Interesting that DC has a different compass than the rest of the world. Do they have their own time-zone too?

On another note: Where are you Che? You have blessed most of the other blogs with your presence. Didn't get aroung to this blog yet? Or is Marc doing everybody a favor and deleting the rants?

Posted by: SoMD | March 1, 2007 9:51 AM

The problem with DC taxis is not the lack of meters. Yes, the old map had to go but the real problem is the utter lack of oversight of the industry.

Personal experience and repeated test by various media outlets show that many or most trips in DC caps are overcharged. People get into caps with almost no idea of what a trip will cost beyond the opinion of the driver. It is frustrating and gives another knock to DC's shady image.

Most of this nonsense would stop if cabbies had reason to worry about complaints to the cab commission (they don't!) or if they had worry that their passenger was an undercover auditor for the commission.

Savvy customers like Marc do quite well in the current system but I am thinking about the others who are being taken advantage of.

Posted by: Josey | March 1, 2007 9:59 AM

While I agree that a new zoning map would do much to clear up confusion, metering makes more sense. To wit, although metering charges more during periods of congestion, this extra fee basically acts as a tax on the person who took the cab, putting one more car on the road during periods of peak car use. In addition, I suspect that metering would make the hacks more money downtown where most of the cabs are because of the congestion, and would also probably result in lower fares for District residents, especially the far majority who do not live in the center city/downtown area. Who knows, it might even make MD and VA residents who work downtown pay their fare (sic) share.
On a side note, it's hard to get a cab in my neighborhood, and even more difficult to get a cab from downtown/bars and clubs to take me home, even though cabs must legally do so.

Posted by: ProMeter | March 1, 2007 10:23 AM

I wish cabs in DC would take credit cards!!

Posted by: Kamantha | March 1, 2007 10:39 AM


Seeing North Carolina Avenue, SE, on the new map reminds me of my Great Aunt Kortright, who lived in the 600 block of N. Carolina Ave., SE, for many years. She was widowed early in life and when I was in my early teens in the late '60s my parents used to let me stay with her during school breaks to help her with household chores, and get a taste of life in the city.

She knew the taxi zone chart better than most cabbies, could name all the zone boundaries and would even end trips a block or two short of a destination and walk in order to save another zone charge.

She passed away in 1980 but something tells me she's got a copy of this map and is already perusing it for the best way to get around town.

Posted by: 20th Street and Pennsylvania Ave., NW | March 1, 2007 11:16 AM

Last night while sitting in ridiculous traffic, I was once again thankful that we're on a zone system and not a meter system. Despite the way-too long period of time in the cab, my trip was still only $8.80.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | March 1, 2007 11:30 AM

20th & Penn has a good point: the zone system favors locals who know the system well enough to avoid being cheated, like Marc Fisher and 20th & Penn's grandmother. Tourists and casual users would prefer meters because it provides more certainty. The zone system is designed to be manipulated, either by the cabbies or by expert customers. Marc, it seems like you generally prefer clarity and openness in government; I think this preference should extend to the taxi cabs of D.C. as well.

Posted by: SSMD | March 1, 2007 11:32 AM

Keep the zone system. Meters make no sense in this town, for all the reasons Marc spelled out. I'm glad to see the new map, it should cut down on confusion. I've never been overcharged by a taxi, but that's because I know where I'm going and I could read the old maps well enough to tell how many zones I was travelling. The new map should help tremendously with that.

Posted by: Moose | March 1, 2007 11:37 AM

You wrote: "Quiz time: Which is more attractive, a Washington cab ride in which a downtown trip is $5 no matter how bad the traffic, or a New York-style ride in which your fare grows more astronomical for every minute you sit in gridlock?"

I have to call BS on this one. No cab ride in DC is 5$. The base fare is 6.50$, if you take a cab during rush hour it's another charge, there's additional charges for additional passengers, etc. Your argument is based on something totally lacking in fact.

As for the system, I routinely take cabs around the city. And I regularly have cabbies try to rip me off. You have to be a smart, aggressive cab rider to ask why the fare is the extra buck or two more, since you didn't cross into an extra zone, or the trip took place outside rush hour (I've had them tell me that rush hour goes till 10am, or starts before it really does), etc. Frankly, cabbies in DC lie. And anyone who has ridden in a decent number of DC cabs would agree. I don't necessarily trust the fare machines either, because it's easy for a cabbie to program it with an extra dollar for the starting charge or whatever. But at least you can see the number there as it moves, and you know what you are going to end up paying.

Posted by: DC_Mike | March 1, 2007 11:45 AM

I stopped taking cabs when I lived in DC because the fares were so random and varying that I was clearly being overcharged by some drivers. I refuse to ever take one again as long as there is a zone system. Just walk or take metro. As for people who don't want meters because it costs more when there is traffic, you should be penalized because you're contributing to the congestion.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | March 1, 2007 11:49 AM

That's a simplifed version? Eek.

Posted by: meters, please | March 1, 2007 11:59 AM

I have taken cabs from my home in Virginia into work in DC and I have taken DC cabs back to Virginia. I always get charged less by the DC cabs who charge by mileage only than by Virginia cabs which charge by meter. I have cabbed in DC to various meetings around town for the last 6 years and have never been overcharged. I prefer the zone system because Marc is right, it makes using a cab in the City where metro/buses aren't as good as they should be but owning a car can be prohibitively expensive, a good alternative.

Posted by: Meg | March 1, 2007 12:12 PM

An earlier commenter wrote: "Tourists and casual users would prefer meters because it provides more certainty. The zone system is designed to be manipulated."

I'm afraid I disagree. A meter system can be open to abuse against tourists because they don't know any better if an unscrupulous cabdriver takes them on a circuitous route just to increase the fare. With a zone system, the tourist at least has the option of pointing at the map and asking, "how did you calculate that fare?"

Posted by: Tom T. | March 1, 2007 12:30 PM

Doesn't it follow that if there are so many cabs per person that we are being overcharged?

Posted by: Reid | March 1, 2007 12:31 PM

Zones are not the problem, but the randomness of traversing them is. This system was designed for business and government types hopping about in zone 1. But getting around as a resident usually means crossing two or three zones. And guess what - the increase between zones is steepest between 1 and 2, and 2 and 3. BTW - is there any rhyme or reason to that pattern: 2.30, 2.20, 1.60, 1.40, 1.50, 2.30, 1.20 ??

Posted by: cpw | March 1, 2007 12:36 PM

I love the zone system when I take a cab from Dupont to Union Station, but I pretty much hate it any other time. I live on a border street, and I routinely have cabbies try to convince me we've gone two zones. And because of the maze of rules regarding extra charges and the difficulty of reading a map that is placed so you have to bend your head almost to your knees and turn your head sideways in a dark cab as it bounces along DC's superbly upkept streets, customers can end up feeling angry and ripped off even when they haven't been. A meter is simple to understand and you know exactly what you owe.

I also hate being charged a full fare when my friends and I have separate destinations a couple blocks apart. When I lived in Philadelphia, we would share cabs home at the end of the night and each get dropped at our door, since the extra charge with the meter was miniscule. Here, we either each take separate cabs, since the charge is the same, or we get dropped at a central point and walk home. That's a safety issue in some neighborhoods.

Posted by: Lee | March 1, 2007 12:39 PM

Instead of meters, I believe some Yellow Cab company taxis are testing out a GPS system that will count zone boundary crossings and automatically calculate the fare instead of having to rely on the map and the driver to come up with it.

Posted by: Rich | March 1, 2007 1:00 PM

The driver of the last cab I took said he would prefer a GPS system for calculating fares. This would preserve the fare-calculation mechanism of the zones, while eliminating the creative calculations of dishonest cabbies, providing records for the cab companies, and protecting those who don't know the city from being taking for a ride (literally) to run up a meter.

Posted by: GJ | March 1, 2007 1:04 PM

I disagree with you about the zone system. For one, I find very few instances where cab-riding is worthwhile for a one-zone trip. Bus, rail and foot adequately cover these trips, and at a much cheaper cost. Second, the distance covered by a two or even three zone trip is often laughable. Again, metro is a better bet. Lastly, I believe cab riders in other cities have a leg up. Chicago, for instance, is a breath of fresh air. It's a cheap and easy way to get around, and unlike here, I never feel cheated by the drivers.

Posted by: barberbolden | March 1, 2007 1:37 PM

I, too, am partial to the GPS system that Yellow Cab has been testing. No matter what route a cabbie takes, the system calculates the fare the rider is charged based upon the fewest number of zones to the destination. That erases the benefit of a driver taking the round about way to your destination. Great! But that's only in Yellow Cabs which most in DC are not. I don't see how the independent cabbies can afford such a system.

The GPS system also allows Yellow Cab dispatchers to know where their taxis are located around town at any given moment. That means that cabbies won't be able to, say, accept a call under the falsehood that he is located near the pick-up address if he really isn't. That can cut down on wait time for customers.

Now, I'm waiting for the system that will correct the fact that so many drivers refuse to pick up some perspective passengers. I've often been told that drivers don't like taking me from Union Station to my Brookland home b/c they can make the same amount of money in less time due to the zone system. I live on a border street so a nearly 3 zone trip is actually only 2 zones.

Then, there's the matter of taxi drivers profiling people attempting to hail a cab. As a Black woman, I am amazed how many times cab drivers have refused to pick me up for a ride. I have taken to walking from my office to a nearby hotel cab to improve my chances of getting a ride. Even there, however, cabbies lock their doors or drive away when I approach at least twice each week. Since I'm an attorney I do my best to copy down their cab numbers so that I can file complaints with the commission. But really it is exhausting to have to fight to give people me money. So I've started driving again. Ugh. So much for taking the Metro to work and grabbing a cab home at night. But what else can I do?

Posted by: Willer | March 1, 2007 1:44 PM

The reason why New York City doesn't have enough cabs is because they limit the number of taxicab licenses (called "medallions")--not because they have a meter system.

These medallions, which can be bought and sold on the open market, are worth around $500,000 apiece. If you want to drive a cab in New York, you either have to buy a medallion or use a cab owned by someone else who owns a medallion.

Posted by: Richard | March 1, 2007 1:44 PM

I've never paid less than 15 dollars for a cab ride in DC, and I tend to get a lot of 30 dollar rides. Plus, none will drive to SW, even north of the river. And what's up with the lights? Their lights are on when they have passengers in the car, and the lights are off when they're empty...

I'm all for GPS.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 1, 2007 1:50 PM

Every time I'm in NYC and get carted around extra miles to get to my destination, I thank goodness for our zone system. We know what it will cost and our cab drivers will -- or at least have incentive to -- get us there by the quickest route.

Meters would increase my concerns because I would be wary of drivers' chosen routes (or barking out instructions on the best route). Zones -- with a good new map -- provide peace of mind.

Posted by: DC | March 1, 2007 2:15 PM

Quiz time: Which is more attractive, a Washington cab ride in which a downtown trip is $5 no matter how bad the traffic, or a New York-style ride in which your fare grows more astronomical for every minute you sit in gridlock?

The economist answers that the meter system is better. If it costs more to ride in a taxi during rush hour, then so be it. That provides a valuable incentive to avoid trips during rush hour. Peak and off-peak fairs on Metro accomplish the same thing.

Posted by: The Economist | March 1, 2007 2:16 PM

I am all in favor of the GPS-based fare calculator system. I don't have a problem with the zone system; the dishonest, lying, cheating hacks are the problem. I can't count the number of times that cabbies have tried to overcharge me, and complaining to the Cab Commission does absolutely no good. A combination of the GPS boxes and much stricter enforcement would make cabs a much more attractive transportation option. As it is now, I would rather take the bus or walk.

Posted by: Ron | March 1, 2007 2:24 PM

I remember hearing a year or so ago about a pilot project involving "zone meters" that would use GPS to calculate the zone fare for cabbies, and would be visible by the rider so they could ensure they were not getting cheated. Seems to me that helps make the system easy to use for everyone while keeping the good things about zone fares.

Would be interesting Marc, to know what the status of that is.

Posted by: Greg | March 1, 2007 2:29 PM

The zone map is a great deal...for those who live and work in Zones 1 and 2. If you're using taxis to travel from the downtown area (the giant Zone 1) to anywhere in Zone 3, 4 or 5, meters would offer up cheaper fares.

For instance, it costs me $13 ($11 for three zones plus $2 tip) to go from, say, the Fox and Hound on 17th Street (Zone 1) home to McLean Gardens (Zone 3A). I would think that a meter would significantly lessen that cost.

Posted by: Matt | March 1, 2007 2:31 PM

I really like the new map. It cleans up some of the unfathomable boundries in the old map.

I hope it goes into effect immediately.

Two questions:the little light blue 3A bump going east of Wisconsin: that's the Cathedral, right? If so, how come this map is making the 2A & 3B pay a two zone fare to go there. It makes no sense.

2nd Q: an age-old one. If you start in 2A, transit through 1 and end up in 2B is that two zones or three? (Example here would be Georgetown to the 9:30 Club.)

Posted by: Georgetowner | March 1, 2007 2:38 PM

Marc - you continue to make this argument, but you really need to get out of Chevy Chase DC. Try getting a cab in Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill (more than a few blocks from the nicer parts), or anywhere in Southwest. The cabs won't even come get you for one of those long hauls that are supposed to be the benefit of the zone system. The system's broke and needs to be fixed.

Posted by: Former DC | March 1, 2007 3:28 PM

Let me get this straight (as I rarely use DC cabs).

Going within a zone costs $6.50 if I'm travelling alone. However, if I go with somebody else, it costs us EACH $6.50??

What the..??????? Talk about a ripoff

Posted by: Anonymous | March 1, 2007 3:49 PM

Very Simple Solution?
Meters to be used in rushhour times like Metro has higher fares and during non-rush hours, we use the zone system. I totally understand how drivers feel cheated by sitting in traffic.

Posted by: John | March 1, 2007 4:12 PM

Have you ever noticed that every taxi in DC has light on its dashboard that is permanently lit and says "check engine". This has been used against me many times to avoid a four zone trip from downtown to Chevy Chase, DC. In my case it isn't racial profiling at all, though I am sure that happens.

On an unrelated topic, as long as we're talking about traffic/motor vehicle improvements, how about more dedicated turn arrows at downtown intersections? One reason the traffic backs up so badly on K Street during rush hour is that cars attemption to turn on K, either right or left, are effectively blocked by pedestrians taking an entire light cycle to cross the street. They have this kind of system in Chicago, among other places, and it helps move things along.

Posted by: Greg J | March 1, 2007 4:17 PM

Keep the zone system, toss the zone maps. Let each cab install a GPS receiver, which keeps track of the zones and the tab.

Posted by: Tomcat | March 1, 2007 4:32 PM

Great article. Couldn't agree more. However, I have to go off on a tangent and share a cab experience I had just a few hours ago.

Most cab drivers I've met from my long time living in the city and taking city cabs are nice, overeducated and pleasant, yes. But this morning, I was taking a cab from U Street to Judiciary Square and ran into just about the biggest sh*t I have ever met. When I politely asked him whether he would like to take a different route, he literally bellowed, "Now why would I take a different route? I'm a Washingtonian, I have lived here for 18 years," apparently assuming that *I* am not a Washingtonian (I am.)
When he let me out (after having taken a roundabout route), he said, "Next time I'll give you the scenic route." I gave him NO CAUSE to be angry. I gave him NO CAUSE to be sarcastic or mean. He simply decided that he could be. And when I gave him no tip, he leaned out the window and asked me if I gave him the correct amount.

I said "yes, I gave you 10.50, you gave me 3 back, it's one zone rush hour."

He didn't deserve my tip. Or my courtesy.

Posted by: Me | March 1, 2007 4:55 PM

Love the zone system. Love the new map. Here's what we should do:

1. Adopt the new map.
2. Print up a ton of them and make sure they're everywhere: hotels, restaurants, Union Station, National Airport, Metro stations, etc. That way, newcomers (and the rest of us) can study 'em up and catch the rogue cabbies who try to cheat them.

I live in NoVa and work on the Hill. I've taken cabs both ways many times and in all sorts of traffic conditions, and every single time, the metered trip into the city is substantially more expensive than the zone-regulated trip out.

So don't mess with a fundamentally good thing--just fix the map and spread it around.

Posted by: J. from Arlington | March 1, 2007 5:24 PM

marc, your argument is "zones good, meters expensive" How on EARTH is that a sure connection??? You're assuming that there'll be a stopped-in-traffic part of the fee. Maybe, maybe not. You could just charge the rush-hour fee and not have the traffic charge. You could, you know, just charge by the mile. Or charge by the hour, whatever. Picture yourself as coming from out of town trying to read that map -- it's nuts!

All I'm really saying is that when someone says "meters", you're making up a totally unfair rate structure in your head and then saying "hoo boy that's too expensive! meters suck!" That's like me saying "hey, let's get vegetarian!" and you saying "No!! Eggplant bad!" As if spaghetti isn't an option.

Posted by: Are you serious? | March 1, 2007 5:25 PM

Why isn't Massachusetts Ave. on this map? That is one of the major streets in DC, and it goes from Union Station to Dupont Circle to the National Cathedral.

Posted by: Laura | March 1, 2007 5:40 PM

I've lived in NY and DC, and anyone who says DC cab system is better is crazy. The distances in DC are so short that there's no reason a cab ride from Union Station to Dupont, for instance, should be $8.80, no matter what traffic's like. The distances in NY are so much further. Also, no NY cabbie would pick up another passenger, inconvenience you by going out of the way, then charge you full fare. That's ridiculous. DC cabbies are crooks... but I don't blame them. The system set up by all the fat cats who live in Georgetown, Glover Park, etc. and can go anywhere they would go for $8.80.

Posted by: Chris | March 1, 2007 5:44 PM

Zones, meters, whatever... my concern with DC cabs is that half of them are 20 year old dingy jalopies! DC should insist that cabs actually have been constructed in this decade!

Posted by: cap hill | March 1, 2007 6:16 PM

"It costs me $13 ($11 for three zones plus $2 tip) to go from, say, the Fox and Hound on 17th Street (Zone 1) home to McLean Gardens (Zone 3A). I would think that a meter would significantly lessen that cost."

Not necessarily.

According to Google Maps, it's 3.2 miles from 17th and R to Wisconsin and Porter if your cabbie takes the most direct route possible.

Using NYC's cab fares as a guide, plus your $2 tip, that ride would cost you a bare minimum of $10.90, not including time sitting in traffic, stopping for lights, etc. Include all those factors and I'm betting it's about the same.

Posted by: Dupont to McLean Gardens | March 1, 2007 6:39 PM

The reason the prior poster who works on the Hill likes the zone system so much is it was set up to be of maximum benefit for lobbyists going to the hill - look at the map - a trip from K street to the Hill is a pretty long haul but it's the cheapest cab ride in town mile for mile.

Look, Marc, I don't know what planet you're living on but this system is a disgrace. I could name several reasons I hate the zone system and most have been pointed out and I second those - but the main reason for me is the embarrassment of having our Nation's Capital's cab system be a hodgepodge of jalopies. Go to Europe - all the cabs look the same, they're all Mercedes; go to NYC, they're all yellow chevy caprices. It looks so much more professional. The cabs I get into here are routinely dirty, creaky, smelly, hot in the summer, and, yes, the check engine light is always on and usually a window is stuck open or closed - and they all have some random dude's name emblazoned on the side. I'm normally in favor the free market but on this one let's get some serious oversight and licensing.

Ugh you hit a pet peeve of mine.

Posted by: JH | March 1, 2007 7:08 PM

DC's cabs are a god-sent for immigrants. My parents moved here from Pakistan. My dad was a lawyer in Pakistan, but his degree was not worth anything here, and he just could not afford to go to law school when he had to set up a new home and stuff here. He started working as a cab driver temporarily, as stepping stone. Like the story of countless other very educated people who decide to use driving a taxi as a stepping stone, he got stuck in it. However, the business from cab was enough for us to have good living, have an apartment in Fairfax County so that we could go to best schools, and now my sisters and I go to the most elite schools in America: Princeton, Amherst and Stanford. I know of many other Pakistani American families in the area where the parents were very educated, started driving cab, moved to Montgomery, Fairfax County or Falls Church (places with good schools), encouraged education and now their kids go to best schools. One generation had to sacrifice, but the next one is reaping the benefits. I love the fact that in DC cabs are small business, and we need to keep it that way. Do not let those big corporations take over the business like they did in New York where no one can afford to own a medallion anymore. Zones or meters, just make sure that cabs remain a viable option for people pursuing their American dream.

Posted by: Cabbie's son | March 1, 2007 10:09 PM

DC CABS AND THEIR DRIVERS ARE HORRIBLE. Please get meters my god. As a DC resident I would take cabs more often but starting at 6.50 is ridiculous to go not even 10 blocks, how is that right? DC traffic is not anywhere close to Manhattan so the traffic argument I don't buy. And DC cab drivers are the worst, they are the slowest non-aggressive absentminded drivers I have ever seen...I miss manhattan cabbies :(

Posted by: Anonymous | March 1, 2007 10:34 PM

DC has too many cab drivers and the reason we do is because they have a perfect license to rip off the consumer: The Zone Map. These guys make a killing on hapless tourists and occasional cab riders who are not familiar with the bizzarro world zone map (that took me years to figure out which city it was supposed to represent). Many of these drivers have limited English and most have poor customer service skills. I hate cabbies in DC and purposefully cut them off in traffic evry chance I get. Until they get meters, I will not be a regular cab customer.

Posted by: corlissv | March 2, 2007 8:53 AM

I once picked up a cab for a trip that I taken many times before (and knew the fare), but pretended to be a tourist as an experiment. Surprise, surprise -- the cabbie tried to charge me 2x the actual fare. I blew him away when I was able to interpret the map.

Unfortunately, DC has a reputation of being a backward and corrupt place throughout the rest of the country. The zone system does nothing to dispel that perception.

Posted by: dclive | March 2, 2007 11:42 AM

I dislike the zone system for the simple reason that it often causes a 1-mile (or shorter) trip to cost $7 or more. I live on two edges of a zone and just happen to prefer the nightlife across the borders. This doesn't bother me when the weather is nice; I walk. But when it's 20 degrees, I pay through the nose for a short, easy, often traffic-free trip.

Posted by: E | March 2, 2007 1:19 PM

Whenever I take a cab ride to an unfamiliar place, I check the fare calculator on the Taxicab Commission's Web site,, where I type in the starting and ending points and get the actual fare. I print this out and take it with me.

I have never had the kinds of problems people are talking about. I take a cab almost daily and alweays pay the same amount, whether we go through the park or up Connecticut. It may be because I look at cabbies as human beings who have to work just like I do, so I have a little compassion. I don't get cheated because I know what my fare is supposed to be and that's what I pay.

Posted by: Van Ness | March 2, 2007 5:25 PM

1. Why is it always the cab drivers that are protesting the meter system, on behalf of riders? Are they really that altruistic? On the other hand, why do you never see riders protesting against the meter system when the issue comes up? That alone is cause for suspicion about who benefits from the zone system.

2. My DC realtor moonlights as a DC cab driver. He loves driving a cab in DC because he can hop in his cab any time and make a lot of cash quickly and mostly tax-free. Yes, I said tax free. I've talked about the meter system with other cabbies and guess what? They love it for the same reasons. As a DC resident, I'd love to see at least some of that cash go to improve the city they're leaching off of.

3. People who use cabs should pay a premium for using a mode of transportation that contributes so much traffic and pollution to DC. I work downtown and watch the traffic from my office window, which overlooks K Street. Cabs contribute more than their share of downtown traffic: there's a huge number of empty cabs downtown (but just try to hail one on Capitol Hill!) just trolling for passengers, they stop in any traffic lane to pick up and drop off passengers (even when a curb lane is available), and they make illegal U-turns during rush-hour, which backs up two directions at once. I'd be perfectly happy to know that the meter's running for anyone who is self-important enough to ride a cab to get around downtown instead of hopping on one of the other modes of transportation that are moving so many people in the same direction: the subway, the bus or the Circulators that pass every 10 minutes. Meters away.

4. No matter what system we have, we need oversight with real teeth to handle the DC taxi cab system... Add it to the list of regulatory agencies that need better enforcement. I can't tell you how many times I've come out of the 9:30 Club, hailed a cab, and, upon giving my destination, the cab miraculously is off-duty until it finds a passenger that is going a few blocks, or is not black.

5. What is the point of the lights on top of the cabs? In NYC, lights on means the cab is available, lights off means it's not, and "off duty" means off duty. In DC, the cab lights mean nothing. Unless you're a minority or you look working class, in which case any combination means "off duty."

Posted by: Busrider | March 3, 2007 10:45 PM

As a frequent visitor to Washington DC from the UK, I love the taxi Zone system and I think it should be kept. It is a really easy system to use and encourages the use of taxis. If I had to sit in traffic in DC as I have done frequently with the meter running I would be forced to use other forms of transport before taking a cab. Whenever I speak to someone about visiting DC I always tell them what a fantastic idea the zone system is and how cheap it is to use taxis instead of hiring a car.

Posted by: Angela | March 4, 2007 4:42 PM

I kind of like the zone system, especially when it benefits me. However, I'm one of the folks usually ripped off. If I ave to take a cab to work or back I have to pay for three zones because my home (zone 1) and work (zone 3) are each only a couple blocks from zone 2 boundaries. A one zone trip all the way across zone 1 is several times farther but costs less. That sucks.

The congestion argument against meters is a red herring. There is nothing that says a meter system must charge for idle time. If DC wants a purely distance based system, we can have it. It would certainly be more equitable.

Posted by: Chris | March 4, 2007 9:21 PM

"Let me get this straight (as I rarely use DC cabs). Going within a zone costs $6.50 if I'm travelling alone. However, if I go with somebody else, it costs us EACH $6.50??"

Not quite. DC allows both "shared riding" and "group riding." "Shared riding" is when a taxicab driver picks up a second, unrelated fare, if doing so doesn't represent a significant detour. Each person pays the normal fare. What you're talking about is "group riding" -- when a group of two or more people are making the same trip. In this case, the total cost is the normal fare for one person plus $1.50 per person above the first.

Disclaimer: In my professional capacity, I have had occasion to work with the D.C. Taxicab Commission, and will probably do so again in the future. Any opinions above are strictly mine, and do not represent those of my employer.

Posted by: quaker | March 5, 2007 10:37 AM

The new map, while nicely colored and legible, is botched.

For some reason known only to the artist, the only diagonal angle used is 45 degrees. This results in many avenues that are as straight as an arrow appearing with numerous bends. For example, it shows Connecticut Avenue downtown as parallel to 16th St NW. At the other end, Connecticut Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue, Military Road, and Western Avenue all come together in one place.

This will surely confuse visitors and residents alike.

Posted by: Eli | March 5, 2007 11:50 AM

I agree that it was illogical in our modern era for D.C. to use a non-North map for its taxi zones.

The North custom for maps has been in place since the Renaissance. Before then, many world maps or continental maps had East or South at the top. The former led to the word "orientation," drawn from the Western word traditionally used to describe the Far East.

Have you seen the South-at-the-top map in Outback Steakhouse? It's a sendup of what many non-Europeans and non-Americans see as our geographic chauvinism.

Posted by: Tonio | March 6, 2007 11:15 AM

More effort should be placed in designing an affordable GPS based meter. Then we keep the affordability of the zone system, and riders wouldn't feel as if they were getting robbed. Maybe offer a tax break to cabs who purchase the meters, so usage is encouraged. Is this really that difficult?

Posted by: Michelle | March 8, 2007 1:34 PM

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