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Taxi Wars: Zones & Meters--The Final Battle?

When the D.C. Taxi Commission meets Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., its members will yet again sift through the age-old arguments about zones vs. meters, and, following the command of a meddling U.S. senator from Michigan, vote on whether to scrap a system that has served Washington well for the better part of a century.

In no other U.S. city even remotely close to this size is it routinely possible to hail a cab on any downtown street and even in many residential neighborhoods. There's a reason for that: We have many, many more cabs on the streets than most other cities in this size range. That tells us that the economics of the taxi system are working reasonably well, especially since, unlike most cities, Washington's taxi industry is dominated by individual operators who own their own cabs--not by large fleets that work with city officials to artificially set the supply of taxis.

So why the constant agitation for replacing our zone fare system with a meter for pricing? Obviously, big companies that want to enter and take over this market would love to have meters, which make it far easier for fleet owners to monitor use of their vehicles.

So we're seeing quite a campaign for the taxi commission to do what it has repeatedly refused to do--scrap a system that works.

Sadly, the current taxi commission seems to be bending under pressure from Congress and other powerful interests. The commission's chairman set this week's vote after he scrapped a hearing that would have provided the only opportunity for public comment. And he confiscated from his own colleagues on the commission all copies of a survey that apparently shows widespread public support for keeping some form of the zone system.

The Post's reporting indicates that commission members are leaning toward a compromise in which the zone structure would be retained but meters would be added to cabs to let passengers know through a satellite mapping system exactly how many zones they have traveled through. If those GPS meters actually work, that sounds like a reasonable compromise, maintaining the fairness and simplicity of the zone system while delivering new confidence to tourists and others unfamiliar with the zone boundaries.

But the commission's process in this rush to judgment has been shoddy and secretive. No major change in the way the taxi system operates should be permitted until and unless the public gets a chance to speak out in an open setting and until the community is given a shot at examining the results of the commission's surveys and other work.

By Marc Fisher |  September 10, 2007; 1:20 PM ET
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All I know is that it cost 13 bucks to get from Dupont Circle to AU-tenleytown during one of the metro shutdowns. To go 3 miles with meters could not possible have cost as much.

Posted by: Jonathan | September 10, 2007 1:38 PM

"a system that has served Washington well for the better part of a century"?!?!?

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this incredibly inaccurate statement. The zone system needs to go. I'm in the same ship as Jonathan: It should not cost me $13-$14 to go from Dupont to McLean Gardens, when I could go the same distance or even a greater distance in the other direction, toward Capitol Hill, and pay less. Please, Marc, tell me how that makes any sense at all.

Posted by: Matt | September 10, 2007 1:41 PM

"a system that has served Washington well for the better part of a century"

If you are familiar with the system and know how to stand up to professional, experience cheating cabbies. Otherwise, you are like my out of town visitors whose introduction to DC is to be ripped off.

Will meters fix a crocked, unregulated taxi industry? Sigh, probably not.

Posted by: Josey | September 10, 2007 2:10 PM

the zone system isn't perfect, but its better than a meter. you can go from georgetown to union station, one zone, in traffic, and pay 7 bucks. people just need to spend all of ten minutes looking at, and learning the map, then they CAN'T be ripped off. Because they know what the fare is before they get into the cab. Not hard to do, folks.

And if a cabbie can't break a 20, then guess what, he doesn't get paid. I ain't giving him a 13 dollar tip because he can't break a 20

Posted by: Dupont | September 10, 2007 4:12 PM

I'm still waiting for a convincing argument that the zone system "works"

It is confusing, when compared to meters

It is unfair, when compared to meters, because it (a) doesn't account for traffic and (b) has large jumps in rates depending on the trip and boundaries.

The best arguments for it seem to be that installing meters is expensive. So what's the "compromise"? Install GPS "zone meters"--that's the worst of both worlds: cost of meters; use of zones.

Posted by: ah | September 10, 2007 4:17 PM

BTW, what is so objectionable about having large fleet owners? I use Red Top Cabs in Arlington with some frequency--their cabs are always new, clean, comfortable, and in very good shape.

It's not like a large fleet will be anticompetitive--the rates on meters are regulated anyway.

Posted by: ah | September 10, 2007 4:18 PM


I thought that you would mention the fact that Mayor Bloomberg decided to move to a zone system for the two day cab driver strike in New York City last week. Apparently the cab drivers who were not on strike liked the system a lot. If Bloomberg is willing to consider zones, how can Mayor Fenty drop them now?

Posted by: pleasant | September 10, 2007 5:13 PM

"...maintaining the fairness and simplicity of the zone system..."

This has got to be a joke. There is nothing simple or fair about the zone system. It's a system based on arbitrary whim. Your fare has nothing to do with the distance you travel, the fuel you consume, the time your trip takes, or any other factor that affects the bottom line of the cab driver. It is based solely on where your origin and destination sit in relation to arbitrarily drawn lines. Certainly, for some, this is a great deal. If most of your trips are in one zone, you're set. But if, like me you live in zone 1 and your most common destination (work, for me) is in zone 3, both just a couple blocks from the zone 2 line, you get slapped with a three zone fare for less than a mile and a half. Yet I can take a 1 zone trip to Capitol Hill that's two and a half miles long. That is not fair in the least.

And, about the maps, they are only easy to use if you know where all the unindicated streets sit. Otherwise, how is anyone to know (especially an out-of-visitor) where their origin and destination actually sit on the map?

Posted by: Chris | September 10, 2007 10:45 PM

Marc, once again you are wrong wrong wrong (in fact, are you ever right?). Why is the zone system under constant attack? Because it is a corrupt system that allows unscrupulous hacks to essentially steal from their customers.

Face it, the DC cab system is a disgrace, and the zone system is article number 1 in the indictment. The zone map is so difficult to read (with poorly labeled streets and the north axis pointing off at around 320 degrees), it could only have been designed with the deliberate intent to facilitate fraud. Furthermore, it is typically positioned in a place (e.g., low on the front passenger seat back) that makes it hard to read. The fare statement is located in a different place than the zone map. Cabs are shoddy (I've always said that DC is where cabs that are too old to be used in other cities end up), often lacking air conditioning. Driver credentials are not prominently displayed. Drivers are surly (especially if you get a driver hoping for an airport run and you only need to go 1 zone). Furthermore, your point about pricing is irrelevant, as it would be easy to mimic the economics of the zone system with a meter-based system.

Marc, in your defense of the zone system, you rival G. Bush in your inability to admit error. You should drop your erroneous position and come over the side that favors honesty and quality.

Posted by: James | September 11, 2007 7:25 AM

" So why the constant agitation for replacing our zone fare system with a meter for pricing? Obviously, big companies that want to enter and take over this market would love to have meters, which make it far easier for fleet owners to monitor use of their vehicles."

Big companies? How about any employee thats ever had to take a cab out of DC to VA/MD more than once a week that gets SCREWED because the cabbies make up the amount EVERY TIME.

Marc constantly glosses over this problem as sort of an afterthought but it is a fact of life that many, many people take cabs out of the city. But again, its "the man" trying to screw with the cabbies.

Posted by: ha ha ha | September 11, 2007 7:56 AM

How kind of you to provide such a glowing endorsement of an archaic system which is notorious for cheating people. I was also amused by the following...."In no other U.S. city even remotely close to this size it is routinely possible to hail a cab......" Clearly you are NOT a regular user of the busted, unreliable taxi system here in DC. I work across from the White House and it can take ten minutes to actually find a taxi that will take me where I need to go (which is typically only as far as Dupont or Georgetown). Sure, occasionally a taxi will stop, roll down his window, ask where I am going and then shake his head disapprovingly stating that is not in his direction. Aren't I paying him to go MY direction? When a cabby suspects that I am not from the area, I can not tell you how many times they have tried to rip me off.

Recently I moved from SE (near RFK) to SW (3.5 blocks from Air & Space). While living in SE I was ejected from two cabs on two seperate occassions after getting in and announcing my location as 18 & D SE, the cabby refused to take me to SE. Those complaints are pending with the taxi commission.

Thanks to the zone system it costs me the same $9.80 to get a 1/2 mile from my office to my current residence as it did the 3 miles to get to my previous home on the Hill. If I chose to get off 2 blocks from my current residence the cost is only $7.80. Now this may not sound like a big deal, but when it is pouring down raining and have bags in my hand the two blocks kind of defeat the purpose of even getting in a cab in the first place. Zone fares need to go!

Posted by: Matthew Kessler | September 11, 2007 8:09 AM

If the zone system is as wonderful as Marc consistently makes it out to be, then why is it (as reported in the Sept. 8th edition of the Post) that "[a]lmost two-thirds of the D.C. residents polled express[] dissatisfaction with the existing system[?]"

Posted by: courthouseguy | September 11, 2007 10:30 AM

Why is it that the way that the discussion is phrased is that the introduction of meters automatically means a) a price increase; and b) capping (and reducing) the number of cabs. How something is measured and how it is priced are two different things; are apples sold by the pound more expensive than apples by the dozen?

A more insightful column might look at why these separate issues are linked, who is behind the linking and what their motives are.

Posted by: DC taxpayer | September 11, 2007 10:36 AM

"In no other U.S. city even remotely close to this size is it routinely possible to hail a cab on any downtown street and even in many residential neighborhoods."

Really? What is the basis for this assertion? I've lived in Chicago and Boston and found it easy to get a taxi when needed.

What I HAVE found is that nowhere have I ever been LESS able to get a taxi than DC - I've never seen a city where cabbies are more reluctant to stop and pick passengers up! I am routinely passed up when trying to hail a cab - they don't even bother stopping and often speed up. (For data collection purposes, I am young, female, white, blonde, often wearing a suit.) The one exception is if I'm carrying anything that looks like a suitcase - in that case cabbies will practically drive across 3 lanes of traffic to try and pick me up.

It's a mystery as to how they make a living if they're not going to pick passengers up.

Posted by: Kay | September 11, 2007 12:21 PM

To the person who said "study the map for 10 minutes and figure out the zones," I have a question.

How much is the fare if it is 2 people going from 18th and K St. to 4th and E SE on a Monday. You pick up the cab at 3:58 and arrive at 4:10. Oh yeah, you have 2 bags. 1 is 1.5 cubic feet and the other is 3 cubic feet. Quick, how much is the fare?

The system is a license to steal. Fisher is a moron about this there is absolutely NO arguement that makes sense for the zone system, other than to keep the cabbies from stealing. Bring on the Red Tops of the world if it will solve the problems.

Posted by: Jackson123 | September 11, 2007 1:16 PM

Zone system: Union Station to 9th & D NE costs $8.80 for less than 1 mile

Meter system: Torpedo Factory/Alexandria to 9th & D NE costs $22 with tip for 9 miles.

Posted by: Tsk Tsk | September 11, 2007 1:25 PM

Chicago has 2.5 million people; DC has 550K. If you are looking at DC proper, we are more like Nashville, Portland and Vegas than NY, LA and Philly.

Posted by: Washington, DC | September 11, 2007 2:16 PM

Dupont - You've made the point as to why the zone system is a joke:
"the zone system isn't perfect, but its better than a meter. you can go from georgetown to union station, one zone, in traffic, and pay 7 bucks."

It's set up so that Hill people can receive cheap taxi rides. Take a cab in any other direction the 3 1/2 to 4 mi. it takes to go from Union Station to Georgetown, and it would cost you at last twice as much. In fact, as Tsk Tsk points out, a cab ride from Union Station to 9th/D St. NE (which is approximately 7-8 blocks), far less than a mile, is $8.80.

The arbitrary nature of this (which by the way favors the wealthier people who live in Chinatown, Dupont, and Georgetown) happens to benefit you... that doesn't mean it's at all fair. This article also doesn't mention the fact that there are out of DC charges. A friend of mine who lives in Silver Spring said that a cab ride downtown is about $20, but a return cab ride to Silver Spring is almost $40 because of these charges.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 11, 2007 2:32 PM

All the DC cabbies try to rip people off. And the GPS zone meters won't help. Crossing a zone line will show up on a GPS, even if the cabbie is crossing it unnecessarily. But with the zone system, the route should not matter. Direct path is what matters. Most people don't know that.

The zone system is broken from the start. There may be lots of cabs in DC, but they are old, dirty, and often smell from smoke. And don't try to ask a driver to not smoke. Plus, how ridiculous is it that cabbies can stop and pick up others when they already have a fare in their cab?

I also find it ridiculous that I have to pay if I call for a cab in DC. They have a guaranteed fare, and charge me for the privilege of taking their cab. Plus, extra people = extra fee, even if it's the same location. Why is that? It's the same amount of gas and wear and tear on the car.

Not to mention how many times I've been ripped off going to Arlington, if I can actually get someone to take me.

The zone system needs to go. Period.

Posted by: ballston metro rider | September 11, 2007 2:41 PM

I've taken cabs in France, England, Kazakhstan, NYC, and lots of other places. DC is the only place where I feel every ride is a risk - that the driver will be rude, won't know the way, will cheat me on the fare.

Meters are the way to go. At least with a meter, you can see what the fare is mounting to and ask to be let off before your destination. With a zone system, it's always a "surprise."

And I second the person who asked why it is that cabbies can charge more for individual passengers. It makes taking a cab a money-losing proposition for groups of travellers. Why do this? In other contexts we encourage shared transportation, carpooling, for traffic and environmental reasons. Why does DC persist in charging extra for doing the right thing?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 11, 2007 3:45 PM

In my four years in Washington, DC, I've not met a single person who likes the zone system. Not one.

This may well be due to the fact that the zone system makes pricing absurdities inevitable. Where there are zone edges, customers get ripped off. For example, i I hail a cab at 2nd and Independence SE and use it to travel 9 blocks to my house east of Union Station, I pay for crossing two zones. If I catch that same cab a mere 200 feet east of 2nd Street (at 3rd and PennAve SE), I pay for a single zone. This is senseless.

Let the free market work- install meters and abolish the zone system. With meters, pricing is clear and you get what you pay for.

Posted by: Kevin R Kosar | September 11, 2007 4:43 PM

The zone system is weird and impossible to understand. DC cabbies also aren't good. Does any government agency actually monitor their performance? Cabbies charge you for putting a suitcase in their trunk, they charge you for rush hour, they charge you for high gas prices, they charge you for having someone with you, etc. Of course, when cabbies stop to pick up another driver, they never ask you if that is o.k., nor do they compensate you for slowing you down on your journey. DC taxis are the pits.

Posted by: NW DC | September 11, 2007 4:48 PM

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Posted by: free mp3 | October 7, 2007 7:18 AM

Mr Fisher, perhaps instead of wasting your time pontificating you could actually do some research before you slam Barwood in your blogs. First of all drivers are not salaried, they are self employed. Barwood works hard to attain 94% on time performance and has less than 1% complaints, a number unheard of in any customer service industry. This slamming of Barwood was created by the Washington Post when they chose to link the CEO with Doug Duncan, former County Executive for Montgomery, the created news was that because the CEO chose to exercise his right to make campaign donations that he must be getting extra favors. This so called news story actually made the front page below the fold, it must have been a slow day for the Post. However, as politicians are known to do, it caused Duncan to freak out and to make uneducated sweeping changes to the Taxi Industry, tighter, unrealistic regulations caused the taxi industry to suffer driver shortages which resulted in a drop in service and of course financial distress to companies who had made major investments based on current regulations. You say Barwood is badly managed, it has been managed by the same management team for the last 30 years. It is easier to blame things on large corporations, thats not news, everyone else does that, but if one is interested one should look at the Regulators and how inept they are and the impact they have on a Company that has been operating well and continues to operate despite their stupid and sloppy regulators who think they know how to run a business, if they did they would be in business but that is probably why they choose to be in the government because there is no accountability.

Posted by: tini | November 6, 2007 8:56 AM

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