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.
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