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Meter This: D.C.'s Fare Wars

Apparently I'm not the only one on the planet who laments the passing of the D.C. zone fare system. The same group of hard-core zone-loving cabbies who staged a one-day strike to protest Mayor Adrian Fenty's decision to cave to congressional fiat and impose a meter system is now threatening weekly strikes from Feb. 4 to the end of time.

Not that that will accomplish anything except a flurry of news coverage and bothered visitors.

The far more effective block to the announced April start of the Meter Era is the fact that not a single cabbie I've spoken to has any intention of buying a meter that quickly. None of them believe the city will really get its act together so quickly, and I have to agree. Three months isn't enough time for the District bureaucracy to process a building permit, let alone change the entire fare system.

But meters are coming, eventually, and now Fenty has scaled back the fares the city originally announced--and substantially so. Gone are the rush hour and additional passenger surcharges, and down, down come the initial fee and the snow emergency fee. If you're a cabbie in this town, the concept of meters was rough enough, given that they will likely diminish or eliminate Washington's grand tradition of owner-driven independent hacking in favor of the chain operations that dominate the suburban cab business. But now the proposed flag fare drops from $4 to $3 and the other pieces of the overall fare will substantially lower cabbies' income.

That's welcome news for those of us who use cabs--you can see how the fares will change on your favorite routes using this nifty calculator put together by the folks at surely the rider group that pushed for these changes is celebrating.

But what will the impact of these lowered fees be on the attractiveness of hacking as a line of work in the District? Already, as WTOP's Mark Segraves reported, there's a backlog of 1,600 would-be cabbies who cannot get on the streets because the District hasn't bothered to revise its cabbie exam, the pathetically easy test that the University of the District of Columbia administers. If those folks in the backlog don't see much reason to charge ahead with their chosen profession, and if big chain companies now start to see the District as a place where they can push out individual operators, that doesn't bode well for the level of service on downtown streets, let alone out in the less-well-served neighborhoods.

The unfortunate aspect of fixing something that wasn't broken is that you soon find that it's very hard to recreate any sense of equilibrium. The fare structure Fenty has now announced will result in higher costs for many riders, especially during heavily trafficked parts of the day, but fares won't be nearly as much higher as they would have been under the first set of rules announced last fall. The prime factors determining how much more you will pay are distance and time, with time being something you never had to pay for under the zone system. Very short hops downtown will be cheaper, sometimes quite a bit so, with meters, while longer trips across neighborhoods will be more expensive. But right now, you have a very unhappy bunch of cabbies, a confused riding public, and a timetable that no one believes. Gee, thanks, Sen. Carl Levin!

By Marc Fisher |  January 23, 2008; 7:01 AM ET
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Why oh Why must you consider to insist that the Cab system wasn't broken. Never have I seen a WaPo writer be more hard headed on the subject.

1St lets get something straight, you can't strike against yourself. Its just called not going to work. The cabs aren't a union and those that stay out will really profit. You even commented in the last strike how much better the streets were.

2nd- Did you know that VA cabs have a mileage limit. After a certain number of miles the cabs are sold to guess who (DC), who has no restrictions. Don't we deserve safe cabs?

Try and get a cab home without a meter from AM late on a saturday night. Yes you can get out of the cab and get the next one or you can have them call the police and then waste an hour of your time (only to probably get in a different cab anyways) but cab drivers like this system because most of them are dishonest. They were ripping people off and the money was untraceable.

For someone who so often claims to be for the people of DC, Marc should be ashamed of himself.

Posted by: Jon | January 23, 2008 7:43 AM

Must agree with Jon.

Confused riders? Of course we do. That's what will be eliminated by the meter system.

We still haven't heard any reasonable defense as to why meters will put all the independent cabbies out of work, but you continue to make this point.

It will put thieving cabbies out of work. Those that are either stealing from the riders or the public at large (by not reporting their proper income - think there's any of those, Mark?)

The zone system is an abomination. As with any upgrade, their will be growing pains. In the meantime, say goodbye to the most ridiculous cab system in the country.

Posted by: Tim from Silver Spring | January 23, 2008 8:09 AM

"Fixing something that wasn't broken?" You don't need to take my anecdotal evidence that the cab system is broken, just look at the city's survey that showed that 70% of city residents LOATHE the zones. All riders want is to pay based on distance traveled, which is logical, rather than a completely arbitrary system where the amount you pay bears no relation whatsoever to the amount of service consumed. I do not see why independent cab companies shouldn't be able to provide a logical service just as well as chains, unless of course the zone system is just an elaborate price-fixing subsidy scheme. In which case, all the more reason to eliminate it.

Posted by: Erica | January 23, 2008 8:29 AM

"Apparently I'm not the only one on the planet who laments the passing of the D.C. zone fare system."

WRONG. You ARE the only person lamenting the end of the zone system (aside from cabbies, who like zones because it allows them to rip off customers). Honestly, Marc, given how blatantly wrong you are on this subject, it's a wonder anyone gives weight to your opinions. Moreover, in your stubbornness on this subject, you rival the pig-head in chief himself, G.W.Bush.

Posted by: WaPo's Next Metro Columnist/Blogger | January 23, 2008 8:41 AM

The cabbies have been fleecing the public for years, and they deseerve everything the meter system does to them. If they can't stay in business, then get jobs elsewhere. It is that simple.

Posted by: get real | January 23, 2008 8:56 AM

I was all ready to express my shock and outrage at Marc, only those who have gone before me have done so much more eloquently. Fix something that isn't broken? That has to be the most laughable statement I have read of yours, Marc. The zone system has been broken and lamented by everyone I know since I moved here 15 years ago. The ONLY people who will suffer from this change are the dishonest cabbies who pocket money, overcharge, or drive cabs that are so dangerous, no one should be in them. I am not a huge Fenty fan but I would re-elect the man for this one effort alone. I cannot WAIT for this city to finally have cabs on par with at least SOME of the rest of the world.

Posted by: esmerelda123 | January 23, 2008 8:57 AM

If the giant backlog isn't emptied...and if big companies move in...and if monkeys fly out of my rear end. You can't throw two ifs against the wall and then whine about how the conclusion is so horrible when you have ZERO evidence to back it up.

I agree with the posters above completely.
1) DC cabs are deathtraps. Never feel safe in them. If this changes as a result of the fare system change--great!
2) I've been taking DC cabs for years and especially when you start heading into Va (or Md), cabbies themselves struggle to know what the fare should be.
3) You complain about fare increases while readily admitting that many shorter cab rides (dare I say the vast majority) will be cheaper. So a short trip no longer subsidizes a long trip. So what. There is no constitutional right to a below-cost cab ride.


Posted by: Sean | January 23, 2008 8:58 AM

The very fact that so many cabbies are against meters means DC is on the right track; they are so dishonest they know it will be harder to rip off and steal from their customers. Theft is the "DC Way".

Posted by: James | January 23, 2008 9:00 AM

I understand the argument that meters make it more attractive for large cab companies to enter the DC market and push out independent cab operators. (It's easier for the large companies to monitor miles and dollars with meters than with zones.) I understand that once the big companies have pushed the independent cabbies out of the market, they (the big guys) will start lobbying for higher rates, by buying a city politician or two.

But I have the zone system and generally refuse to take cabs on principle: the system doesn't make sense and is arbitrary. Also, too often I've been charged wildly varying fares for the same trip. So, I almost always take a Metro train or bus or I walk.

Still, I don't see why we can't have independent cabs and a meter system. Why not have a law that limits the number of cabs a single entity (company or individual) can own and operate? Such a law can be justified because it promotes competition.

Posted by: Dan | January 23, 2008 9:01 AM

The fare system is super if you happen to land a cabbie who is honest and you are familiar with the system AND you aren't traveling very far. But, otherwise, c'mon. It's a lousy system.

Who cares about the independent cabby? At least this way someone will be looking over their shoulder and will be able to tell if they are ripping people off.

Stop this fantasy about the great independent nature of the cabbie. How about a reasonable price for a cab ride, and how about accountability?

Posted by: Hacksaw | January 23, 2008 9:01 AM

Marc, that calculator is a neat tool. I used it to calculate the cost of going from my old office at 9th and E to my home in NE. I took a cab a few times over the years and the cost of those trips ranged from $13.50 to $15.00.

It is interesting that the calculator shows that the zone charge should have been $11.00, and the meter charge will be only $10.00. Seems fair that they are punished for ripping me and others off for all those years. Payback is hell.

Posted by: John | January 23, 2008 9:07 AM

I've been ripped off by cabbies too many times.

A one zone trip from Rayburn HOB to RnR Hotel on H. $8.

The one zone fair back. Different cabbie $14. I gave him $8 and told him to check his meter. When he protested I offered to get a Capitol Police Officer to resolve the dispute. He drive off, the same disgruntled theif who dropped me off.

Posted by: Angry Customer | January 23, 2008 9:08 AM

I've been waiting for the Marc Fisher piece on the fare announcement. And it was just as entertaining as I expected.

First, you are the only consumer I've ever heard lament the loss of the zone system. DC residents of decades - and tourists who are in their first cab ride - all universally dislike the zone system. It is dependent on an unclear pricing structure that inherently allows cabbies to manipulate customers. As an advocate for the District's residents, I would think that you would be looking out for the people who are tired of being ripped off by DC's cabbies, or are tired of shouting matches and pleading for the correct fares with cabbies.

Second, saying that the new system will result in higher fares for many riders is way too much of an oversimplification. I used WashPost's fare calculators to run all my normal routes - Woodley Park to U Street, Golden Triangle to Woodley Park, Golden Triange to the Hill (House and Senate side), Georgetown to a variety of neighborhoods. Almost every single one came out cheaper, in some cases considerably so, under the new system. So clearly, the new system saves lots of customers money, too. I'm matching your oversimplification with my own.

Third, the best thing that can happen to the DC cab system is an upgrade in quality control. So some of the big cab companies come into town? That means better cabs and safer drivers. How many times have all of us gotten into an early-1990s Ford Crown Vic, a name and a few black numbers slapped on the side, the plastic trim falling off, the lights barely working, the driver half-asleep, or worse, potentially half-drunk (I have absolutely been on rides where a few minutes into it, I realized the driver was drunk - and demanded each time that they pull over). The DC cab system allows "enterprising" owners to open up shop with no regard for safety or quality, and that puts DC residents in an unsafe situation.

Fourth, of course the cabbies are protesting this switchover. They know that they stand to lose money in it. No more double snow fares? No more picking up multiple passengers? All things that allow DC customers to win! Who among us hasn't had a cabbie troll along at 15 MPH on M Street, in Adams Morgan, on U Street, trying to hustle other cabs, while we are sitting there trapped in the back seat? My last experience like this devolved into a shouting match, as after 5 minutes crawling along I demanded that the cabbie take us to our destination immediately. I'll point out, he was the one who cursed at me, called me derogatory terms and then yelled when I only gave him $11 on a $10.50$ fare. Are you kidding me!?

Like I said, I had no doubt this column was coming. And it lived up to expectations. Your waxing poetic about DC cabs and the zone system has gone on long enough. I'd like to see you stand up for those of us who have suffered through DC cabs for far too long. To echo the person above, you sure don't speak on my behalf with your current line of messaging.

Posted by: DC_Cab_Hater | January 23, 2008 9:12 AM

The zones were based on arbitrary lines and borders. I don't understand why being charged based on time and distance traveled isn't logical.

When I used to take a cab from Dupont to just past Porter up CT it was three zones even though the distance is not that far and it was costing an insane amount of money versus the distance. According to the fare calculator it should have been 11 which is below what every cab charged me. Now it would be $7.

Fisher needs to give this up. The benefits to the city and citizens as a whole far outweigh anything else.

Posted by: CBC | January 23, 2008 9:22 AM

Despite your claims Marc, the system is broken. When it costs more to cross 2 blocks than it does to go a mile, something is not working. When a return trip costs more than the same original trip because the cab driver is either scamming you or can't figure out the zone system either, something is not working. When most of the feedback received by the Mayor is for a different system, then clearly DC residents feel that the current system is not working.

One point lost in all this debate is how demand will be affected by the new cost of taking a cab. Although the cost of a cab ride is now cheaper on average, I predict that demand will now increase significantly, and if cab drivers are able to meet this demand, then the volume of trips taken in this city will be much higher, helping to more than compensate for the decreased cab fares. Right now, the price of taking a reasonable cab trip in this city is priced too high, and it doesn't provide enough incentive for riding with extra passengers. With a lower price point now and the extra passenger surcharge eliminated, I bet that people will be much more willing to use a cab. I definitely plan on taking one more often.

Posted by: Angelo | January 23, 2008 9:28 AM

The vote count at this point:

Consumers: 13
Marc: 1

At this time all three major news networks are projecting the Consumer to be the winner.

Better luck next time Marc.

Posted by: SoMD | January 23, 2008 9:29 AM

I don't know. To be honest, a lot of this "i just know cabbies are ripping me off" smacks of racism. Most cabbies are immigrants, just trying to make it. They work long hard hours, and if you try to speak with them, they are generally very friendly. Sure, some reforms would be nice - more inspections for cleanliness, no talking on the phone, no radio. But those are small changes.

It just seems that when a person gets into a cab, if they can't understand the zone system, they automatically assume that they are getting ripped off. Well, I understand the zone system PERFECTLY, and 99% of the time, the cabbie quotes me the correct price. And I wait for them to tell me the price. The rare times they quote me too high, I correct them. But generally, cabbies are honest people.

And for those of you that are noble enough to worry about the out of towners, or the idiots from Virginia that don't know their way around town, how will a meter fix that? A meter will make it easier. They can take you the long way, on the crowded streets. Under a meter system, it behooves the cabbie to have a long ride, since you are getting charged every minute. Under the zone system, it behooves the cabbie to take the shortest/quickest route so they can get another passenger in the car.

I just think we all need to calm down, and realize that cabbies are not ripping us off. Yes, your fares may be different for the same trip, but that is because of the rush hour charges, snow emergency, gas surcharges, etc. They typically quote you the correct price. They are honest men and women trying to make a living. Lets be civil here.

Posted by: DCmarathoner | January 23, 2008 9:31 AM

A cab ride for 3 people from Arlington to DC cost 11 bucks in a metered cab. Same cab ride back, (no meter) cost 19. The Zone System needs to go!

Posted by: dmk | January 23, 2008 9:35 AM

"...eliminate Washington's grand tradition of owner-driven independent hacking..."

More like a grand tradition of ripping people off. Marc, you are an idiot. You really are. The cabs in this town are beat up, s-boxes, and the drivers are among the worst. They are dishonest. Let them strike and lose money. Marc, get a clue.

Posted by: Z | January 23, 2008 9:41 AM

In 11 years as a resident of DC, I don't know anyone who likes the zone system. Not One Person. Looks like you need to get your blinders off and start acting like a real reporter instead of a hack.

Posted by: ek | January 23, 2008 9:42 AM

DCmarathoner, I had no idea cabbies were a race of people!

Posted by: John | January 23, 2008 9:43 AM

I appreciate your sentiments, DCmarathoner. But even as someone who knows the system pretty well, I find that I am consistently quoted different prices for the same exact rides, and that I am frequently forced to argue with cabbies over whether we crossed a boundary or not, whether some extra charge should be in effect, etc. I regularly ride the route from my office to home, and know that it is two zones, but that it takes you near a zone barrier and that it ends near a zone barrier. I've had cabbies regularly argue we crossed the barrier along the way, and that my apartment is just outside the zone line. When I've called them on it, more than a few have protested vehemently. It has nothing to do with racism, I don't care what ethnicity my cabbie is - it has to do with trying to make an extra couple bucks off of someone. And it's just not right.

To your other point, I disagree that zones don't encourage cabbies to take out-of-the-way routes. Most cabbies are smart enough to know the zone barriers. And I've seen them cut over a couple blocks to cross into a new zone, just to jack up the price. It happens to me on Florida Ave, and it also happens on 2nd St SE/NE by the Capitol, where they can go an extra block and then turn, pushing you into another zone.

It's a sham. I can't wait for it to end.

Posted by: DC_cab_hater | January 23, 2008 9:44 AM

Wow, the calculator indicates my most common trip from DC to Arlington should cost less than $10. I wonder why most DC cabbies try to charge me $15 to $20 for the same trip?

Posted by: Arlington | January 23, 2008 9:48 AM

Arlington, how did you get the calculator to work outside the District?

Posted by: John | January 23, 2008 9:52 AM

I disagree completely with Mr. Fisher. My dissatisfaction with the current level of cost and service runs so deep that I will do anything -- walk, bus, metro -- to avoid taking a cab. Why take the chance of getting ripped off, ditched, or ending up in a confrontation? It boiled over for me last month when a cabbie ditched my wife, riding alone on a cold, rainy evening, on Massachusetts Avenue NW because he didn't want to take the time to get around a detour. He told her to get out, and there was nothing she could do. I came to pick her up -- she was shaken up from the confrontation, cold and wet, and scared to be standing alone in the night. Thank goodness for cell phones, thank goodness for meters!

Posted by: Barber in DC | January 23, 2008 9:53 AM

I have to echo what most posters are saying here. I think it might be interesting to have readers send their first person examples of the shameless lawlessness of certain cabbies allowed by the current arbitrary zone system.

Mine--easy. I once took a cab from Porter St NW to Judiciary Square. Once there the cabbie informed me there was a $15 dollar surcharge, in addition to the regular fare, for driving on the parkway when it was raining!

I of course didn't pay him a dime more than the zoned fare but the blatant thievery possible in the current, confusing, arbitrary system has to go.

Posted by: Waiting for April | January 23, 2008 9:54 AM

DCmarathoner wants everyone to be civil but calls everyone from Virginia in his post an idiot? Nice logic.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | January 23, 2008 10:00 AM

DCmarathoner - how can ""i just know cabbies are ripping me off" smack of racism when you have no clue of the ethnicity of the people that posted those comments? Don't put the a-s-s in assumptions...

I don't think race has anything to do with it and I don't get that vibe from the comments above. Regardless of who you are, just because you're trying to make it doesn't give you the right to rip people off, and people are just tired of that, on top of having to ride in broken down cars. People with the skills and motivation to be successful as a cab driver will do fine under the new system because they won't mind having to be accountable - the others should be in a different line of work anyway.

Posted by: Toonces | January 23, 2008 10:02 AM

Marc, how can you possibly lament the passing of the zone system? Please come into the 21st century with the rest of us.

Posted by: cleveland parker | January 23, 2008 10:04 AM

I like the zones. I know what I owe and pay and tip accordingly. I disregard any attempts by the driver to upcharge. You want to call a $6.50 trip $8.80? Fine, but I'll tell you it's one zone and hand you $8 as I get out. I didn't like the per person charge. The meter is a lot easier for riders to deal with though.
Finally, I don't agree that thinking you were ripped off constitutes racism anymore than disliking your school district's COO's wife is sexism.

Posted by: weaving | January 23, 2008 10:07 AM

FYI everyone- Marc is now filtering the blog. I guess someone skin just isn't that thick.

Posted by: Natstural | January 23, 2008 10:07 AM

I completely agree with Marc. Many of my friends bash the zone system, but for those of us who work downtown, the reliability of knowing how much a fare cost between two points was superb.

My main problem with the meter system is not the distance argument, but the time argument. If meters reflected simply the amount of distance travelled, I'd be a huge fan, because that's basically an expansion of the zone system.

As a consumer, I want to pay the same price, ride-after-ride, for going between the same two spots. Maybe a surcharge for rush hour. But to have the same ride, at the same time, cost a different amount depending on what cab driver I get, or what route he takes is *very frustrating* for me. That's why I like the zone system so much.

If you want to see a dysfunctional system of cabs, just look at how much it takes to obtain a medallion in NYC. Cabbies there are treated like dirt, and it appears from the comments here that most WaPo readers would like to treat the ones here in the same way.

Posted by: district | January 23, 2008 10:13 AM

And one other thing - to Marc's tired argument that the new system will just shepherd in an era of corporate fleets that will result in less cabs and not being able to easily hail one, I say, come over to Arlington some time. While Red Top is my personal favorite, we also have Yellow Cab, and at least three smaller outfits in Crown Cab, Friendly Cab, and Blue Top Cab that service here. I take regular trips to the same destinations with whichever one I get first, and all cost the same, they've all been clean, and I've never had to wait more than a couple of minutes to hail one on the street near commercial areas. If I call Red Top for a pick up they usually show up in minutes.

Posted by: Toonces | January 23, 2008 10:14 AM

I actually rather liked the zone system, and I'll miss it. After I spent maybe twenty minutes several years ago to memorize the zone boundaries, no driver ever tried to cheat me -- either fraud isn't as widespread as the comments here indicate, or the drivers can sense who knows the zones and who doesn't and are preying on the ignorant.

The Post's calculator shows that most rides I typically take will be somewhat cheaper with meters. However, the high estimates ("heavy traffic") are usually higher than the zone fare, often by three bucks or so. As someone who only takes cabs every once in a while, this is a serious downside -- with my luck, the one day I take a cab will be the one day traffic gets backed up to hell and gone.

So, yeah, mark one consumer on Marc's side, although not with the same level of conviction and brio.

Posted by: otherquaker | January 23, 2008 10:18 AM

Toonces, the last two times I tried to call a cab company in DC to pick me up, they never showed up!

Posted by: John | January 23, 2008 10:19 AM

Red Top cab is adding hybrids. Marc is always complaining about the car pollution, and the evil cooperate cab companines have the money to purchase these vehicles. Marc, even contradicts a lot of his own opinions when he tries to stand up for the cabbies.

Posted by: Ballston Cab Rider | January 23, 2008 10:29 AM

I've lived here for 10 years and severely limit my use of taxis in this town. I'd have a doctor's appointment near GW, and that cab ride on the way up would cost me $7.00 on the way up (from R.I. & Conn. Ave.) and invariably would only be $6.00 on the way back and that was during non-rush hour periods. Ridiculous. Sounds like the cabbies don't like that their sacred cash cow is about to served as Steak Diane to the deserving public.

Posted by: TJ | January 23, 2008 10:34 AM

Marc, I agree with you on a lot of subjects, but not this one. The zone system is, and has been, a failure. I used to take cabs frequently, usually over fairly consistent routes, and the majority of drivers pretty much just pull a number out of thin air. The ability to double up on passengers means drivers are almost always on the lookout for a person to ride with you, and therefore are far less concerned with getting you to your destination in a timely fashion. I've had a driver stop to pick up a third passenger (I was the second) even after the first passenger complained about being late for a meeting. I've had drivers take me out of my way to pass through an extra zone and been quoted blatantly fake surchages. The system could not be more broken.

I hope the taxi drivers do strike regularly to oppose this. The day they went on strike last year was by far the most pleasant, safest drive I've ever had in DC. If we can take this opportunity to get rid of some of the truly dangerous cabbies - and to get rid of their bizzare sense of entitlement - it will be a win for all involved. And I'm including the cabbies in that sentiment, as their reputation and professionalism will hopefully go up.

Posted by: Matt B. | January 23, 2008 10:41 AM

As a consumer I want everything to be free.

Independent businessmen should accept my opinion of what they should charge for their services.

They should never be allowed to profit from their work, only I should. Because I'm special! In fact, having me patronize their beaten up old business is such a privilege, for them that they should pay me.

When I take a cab in DC, instead of asking the fare ahead of time, I should avail myself of their services, then start a fight with them, refuse to pay, and accuse THEM all of ripping ME off.

Of course, I would not do their job if I were paid millions, and I would never utter a word to them unless moved to do so by some false sense of entitlement.

Oh, and all people darker than I am, who live on an impossibly thin margin are "rip-off artists" if they demonstrably would rather not work for nothing.

Of course, when my beloved, racially and ethically pure meters are finally a reality, and I'm charged for time stuck in traffic, I swear to start the whole ugly game over again.

Come on folks, the city is daring all cab drivers to quit, or starve.

Maybe if that happens, you'll start actually THINKING about what a cab ride is worth, instead of just thinking you already know. You don't.

Posted by: Mayor of Lollipop Land | January 23, 2008 10:51 AM

$8 for a cab ride to the Rock n Roll Hotel?

But that's almost one less apple berry mojito I'll get to drink! That's almost a quarter of the cover charge I'll pay!

This is the greatest injustice in the history of the world!

Posted by: Victim! | January 23, 2008 10:55 AM

I love how so many people in DC fall in line with Marion (The "Female" set me up) Barry and claim racism for no reason.

The funniest part is these appear to be similar people who also claim that Cabbies won't pick up anyone but whites.

You can only cry wolf so many times before people tune you out.

Try getting a cab home to VA from a nightlife area. The cab try to charge you double. They keep their doors locked and wont let you in until you agree to their robbery. Even if someone does let you in first, they try to rip you off once you get in the cab. Yes you could get the police (assuming they have the time) but isn't your time worth more than the one or two hours it would take to get the situation resolved, with the best outcome being a ticket to the cabbie. In all probability, your still not riding home in that cab.
It's not racism, its just a pure revolt against a corrupt system.

Posted by: Jon | January 23, 2008 11:01 AM

I have to join the chorus that thinks Marc has his music upside down. I've lived here for 17 years (and visited on business for a decade or more before) and the DC cab system has always struck me as giving drivers a license to commit highway robbery. I commuted for years by Metro, but a medical condition made that impossible for a period a year or so ago. Taking DC cabs from the front of the building where I work to my home in Arlington resulted in fares from $9.75 to $15 for the same route at the same time every day.

Posted by: Walter | January 23, 2008 11:05 AM

I actually am with Marc. I liked the zone system because I always knew the price I was going to pay to get from downtown to Capitol Hill. I did the fare calculator and I will now be paying more for that ride even in "normal traffic" and that is assuming that the cab driver doesn't decide to drive around for awhile to jack up the fare. I take an average of 3-4 trips from downtown to Capitol Hill a week (and yes my office reimburses me) but I work for a non-profit so we do have a limited budget. I can't just not go to the Hill because I've gone over my travel budget because it is part of my job.

I also feel it is already difficult to get a cab in this city and it will become much more so if many of them leave the business because they can't make enough money to live on.

Posted by: Dublin Traveler | January 23, 2008 11:13 AM

Marc, when did you stop being a reporter and turn into the lobbyist for the Thieving DC Hack Association?

You've been writing your column for too long if you think your opinion in any way matches the sentiment of the riding public. Just look at the posts in this blog. Maybe the Post needs to get you back out on the street to get you back in tune with real people.

Posted by: Chris | January 23, 2008 11:20 AM

Regardless of the pluses and minuses of old or the new system, my concern remains about getting the cabbies to pick up and transport passengers regardless of destination or race. I work downtown with mentally ill adults and have frequently tried to get cabs to take them home (when Metro Access and Medicaid vans fail, which is all too often). One day, I was trying to catch a cab for an elderly woman with a walker, going toward Takoma Park. The first cabbie, after seeing who the passenger was and where she was going, said he just remembered that he had a class to go to. The second cabbie suddenly realized that he was nearly out of gas (he wouldn't let me see his gas gauge). When the third cab arrived, I tossed her walker in and handed him the address and fare. So my concern is that no matter which system is used, nothing can probably ensure that the cabs will take people where they want to go, especially elderly, infirm African Americans.

Posted by: concernedcitizen10 | January 23, 2008 11:24 AM

Hey Mayor of Lollypop Land, you're invited to come over to Arlington too. We've always had meters, we're not up in arms about them or trying as you say "to get our rides for free" as consumers, and our cabs are safe and clean. Being right across the river, many of us have also ridden in DC cabs many times, and can make an objective comparison. I can only speak for myself but I'd be willing to wager that if you did a survey, most people in NoVA would not say they wish our cabs could be more like DC.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't get the racist angle on this - I don't care who is driving the car as long as they get me where I'm going in one piece for a fair price. Claiming that a zone vs. meter system is a racism issue is a lazy minded excuse not to think. Noone is asking or expecting cabs to drive people around for free.

Posted by: Toonces | January 23, 2008 11:27 AM

I feel sorry for honest cabdrivers. But dishonest ones have been overcharging us for years. And sometimes its so complicated that they dont even know what the correct fare is. A few times Im sure I've been undercharged. I've certainly been charged wildly different fares for the same route before. Every city in the world uses meters for a reason. Thank god DC is making the change!

Posted by: Alan | January 23, 2008 11:28 AM

The "grand tradition of owner-driven independent hacking?" Give me a break. Large companies provide newer cabs and standard procedures. Name one advantage that independent operators provide for consumers? The old zone system was RIDICULOUS. I'm from NYC. For trips of more than four blocks I'd often jump in a cab esp if I was with someone else. Here, I NEVER take a cab for that distance even with a group because of the absurd per person charges. To me, the per person charges and the ability of a cab driver to pick up extra people even more than the zone represented the degree to which the system in DC was wholly anticonsumer.

Cabbies do have a legitimate argument though that they frequently have to take people to NoVa and are not allowed to pick up there. Every cabbie I talk to uses this argument to push for hire base. That, of course, punishes everyone. Instead there should simply be an extra charge or a higher meter rate once you cross the district line.

I also think that a rush hour surcharge is legitimate. It fairly compensates the cab driver and provides an appropriate incentive to take mass transit during rush hour.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 23, 2008 11:28 AM

Oh, for crying out loud Marc! Why do you continue to spout out that tired old line that if it ain't broke, don't fix it? The DC zone fare system was an absolutely broken and abusive racket! As someone whose experience with DC cab drivers has led me to avoid them except as an absolute last resort, I am beginning to feel that your harping on this issue is an actual disservice to your readership. As a newspaperman, would you PLEASE take your ego out of this and start looking at the common good?

Posted by: Bloomingdale, DC | January 23, 2008 11:42 AM

Marc --

You must be the last person on Earth still trying to defend DC's awful taxi system - a system that was broken more than a generation ago and has only gotten worse.

There are three things that I can count on when I get into a DC Cab:

1) The cab will be dirty and probably in poor mechanical condition.
2) The driver will want to pick up another fare and take him out of my way first.
3) We'll end up arguing about what the right fare or zone charge ought to be.

Pity the poor tourist who has to deal with our idiosyncratic drivers and fare system. I wonder how many of them end up paying an honest fare; and what they must think of our city.

I do care about the number of cabs on the street - and that's why the fare reduction was a mistake. I don't care who owns them as long as they're clean, safe and the fares are consistent and clear. Meters are long, long overdue; and if they drivers don't like it, find another profession.

Posted by: Downtown Rider | January 23, 2008 11:45 AM

I loathe the cabbies in this town. I am a frequent cab rider and I can't count the number of times I've been cursed at for the crime of asking to go from the West End to Capitol Hill. Their misery makes me smile.

Posted by: CapHill | January 23, 2008 11:50 AM

I have to add that I just don't see cabbies weaving around in traffic to boost up the fare. They will make more money with more passengers thanks to the base fare. I am not worried about that at all. I also don't see the concern with companies coming in and independent hackers dwindling. I think cabs would benefit from certain standards, and the increased comfort would encourage more people to ride, offsetting any loss.

And I have to say, I always thought the complaints that cabbies only pick up white people to be far-fetched -- until I saw it repeatedly firsthand while in law school. More than once, black classmates could not hail a cab. I would stand on the sidewalk and watch cabs blow by them on the street. Once we changed places and *I* hailed the cab? No sweat. cabs stopped right away. It was infuriating and insulting.

Posted by: esmerelda123 | January 23, 2008 11:53 AM

There are ordinances. Cabbies have to be dressed in clean clothes, and I think they have to wear a neck tie. The car itself has be clean, inspected regularly, and is subject to some other rules (like a fine for being without a spare tire, any abridgements on the logs, no receipt papers, etc.). The real problem is that there are not enough Inspectors, which should be coming from DCRA.

Posted by: Guy (really, that's my name) | January 23, 2008 12:04 PM

Why would I care if these independent thieves...I mean cabbies are taken over by large cab companies. I do care that they have been cheating DC with that crappy zone system. You lament the passing...You are obviously the only one according the the comments posted. Oh yeah...maybe the big cab companies will pay their taxes to DC since the independent cabbies do not

Posted by: You Must Be Kidding | January 23, 2008 12:14 PM

For the poster who opined that thinking the cabbies are ripping me off is racist- that's just silly. The only color I see on this issue is GREEN! I don't base my feelings on who's driving- I base it on the fact that trip into town from Bethesda on a Friday/Saturday in a DC cab routinely costs me 20 bucks but a trip home after metro closes varies between 50 and 75. I've even been asked for 100 from a particularly gutsy cabbie. They know they have you trapped and they know they have no checks on their income! I'm appalled! I've had to get out of cabs at some times and wait for a more honest driver. I now make it a habit to be on the last metro train- at least the fare there is legal and consistent! It is ridiculous that DC cabs are the only ones allowed to pick up riders in the district and there is no oversight over the fares. Cabbies don't even have to justify the vague zones if you leave the DC boundary. I am so happy and can't wait for the meters to be out in force!

Posted by: Happy in DC! | January 23, 2008 12:15 PM

Is it any wonder Fisher writes for the WaPo? Only at this newspaper in this city could you think the cab system wasn't broken. I suppose it's not as bad as the public schools and I suppose it's not as bad as Barry's crack habit. Thus it's not broken. By those standards, if Fisher doesn't get stabbed or mugged, it was a good day in DC. Talk about the bigotry of low expectations...this city will only improve once it starts demanding more from people than the same old tired excuses.

Posted by: FisherPrice | January 23, 2008 12:20 PM

"Cabbies do have a legitimate argument though that they frequently have to take people to NoVa and are not allowed to pick up there."

On the rare occasion when I've had to take a cab from DC to Virginia I've always made a point of tipping them extra for that very reason. The cabbies should be allowed a surcharge for such trips because it's not just the expense of the gas and depreciation on the vehicle (although in fairness most DC cabs are already pretty thoroughly depreciated), it's also the expense of the number of fares lost due to the need to travel back to DC. I do the same in New York--if I take a cab from Madison Square Garden to my relatives' place in Brooklyn I'll tip more because I know the cabbie will have a harder time finding another fare in their neighborhood. The fact that he's legally required to take me there is irrelevant to my view of what's right.

But to turn to zones versus meters--I agree with everyone else that the meters are much fairer for everyone. One problem with the zones is the way the cabbies contend that it's the number of zones through which you travel that matters. They're wrong. It's supposed to be the number of zones through which you'd pass on the most geographically direct route. The fact that your average driver might take a different route to avoid a traffic jam is supposed to be irrelevant. For example, if you go from the MCI Center to the Protestant cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue, your fare is supposed to be based on three zones because the most direct route (Massachusetts to Wisconsin) goes through three zones. Many people might instead go around via Adams Morgan and across the Calvert Street bridge so as to avoid Dupont Circle. Going this way, you pass through four zones, but under the current regulations that's not supposed to affect the fare at all. The only solid defense against the cheating cabbie is to use the online fare calculator available at and to show the printout to the cabbie if he tries to argue.

Finally, regarding whether the cabbie with a meter will try to go out of his way so as to run up the fare, doesn't that depend on the nature of the trip, same as in any other city? Put differently, unless it's a very long trip, the cabbie stands to make more money by getting you to your destination and getting rid of you because the incremental income he makes for going a longer distance (or for sitting in slow traffic) on your trip is likely not as much as he'll make from the base fare when he picks up another passenger, unless he intentionally gets stuck on a road that's routinely gridlocked.

What DC really needs is to send someone to London to learn how they license cabbies. Other than the cost of a cab from Heathrow to the City (£50+) I've never heard anyone complain about London cabs.

Posted by: Rich | January 23, 2008 12:23 PM

A few people somehow think that people writing this are against the cabbies because they are immigrants...well just ask all the black and hispanic people that they fail to pickup if they think the same way...oh yeah since I am one...heck no!! It is not racism it is revenge...They do not have a right to cheat the public nor fake their rates. Stinky cabs with bad drivers can be something you like but the other 99.8% of us are glad of the change.

Posted by: To the Mayor of Lopiland | January 23, 2008 12:24 PM

Dublin Traveler, take the metro.

"I also think that a rush hour surcharge is legitimate. It fairly compensates the cab driver and provides an appropriate incentive to take mass transit during rush hour."

True, however the addition of the meter accounting for time sitting in traffic will make up for this lost surcharge(and possibly make more money for the cabbie). I honestly think the prices will all even out. There will be higher fares during rush hour and long trips, and lower ones for short trips and non-rush trips. What I like is that I know I'm not going to have to argue and haggle at the end of my trip.

And you can see the meter running when you are in the cab. If the fare is nearing what is too high for the budget and you are 4 blocks away (or a reasonable walking distance) from your destination, you can always get out there.

Posted by: Laura | January 23, 2008 12:25 PM

I had to almost stop reading after "The unfortunate aspect of fixing something that wasn't broken..." Mr. Fisher, when was the last time you rode in a DC cab? I just think you're trying to goad us into responding, and it worked! The meter system was certainly the result of years of inconsistency and bad behavior of the hack system.

Posted by: Phil | January 23, 2008 12:55 PM

I was just looking at the zone map and I'm amused to notice that the closed stretch of Klingle Road is used as a zone border.

Posted by: Rich | January 23, 2008 1:02 PM

Marc, you often write foolish articles, but this "takes the cake!" I know of no one who laments the passing of the zone system. In fact many people say that they will now take a cab to the club instead of drive. Starting in April, DC will be in sync with other major cities who charge by distance and time. No one is confused by that; it's the status quo in the 21st century.

Posted by: zo | January 23, 2008 1:04 PM

Marc, you often write foolish articles, but this "takes the cake!" I know of no one who laments the passing of the zone system. In fact many people say that they will now start to take a cab instead of drive on some trips. Starting in April, DC will be in sync with other major cities who charge by distance and time. No one is confused by that. Cabbies can strike if they want, there will be a "scab" to take their place or corp. companies will move in, and I am fine with that as well.

Posted by: zo | January 23, 2008 1:05 PM

Marc Fischer,

Its disgusting that you defend a corrupt system. I wish you the very worst and I hope bad things happen in your life.


Posted by: Eric W. | January 23, 2008 1:10 PM

Mostly great discussion above. If I were Fenty, I would counter any potential DC taxi strike by authorizing VA and MD cabs to pick up as well as drop off passengers in DC for the duration of the declared strike plus one extra day. This could also be a useful tactic to use if DC taxi drivers try to delay or otherwise inhibit the installation of distance meters in their taxis.

On another point, I've heard about some academic research indicating that there are too many licensed taxis in DC when compared to other U.S. cities with similar populations. Don't know if it's true, but would be interesting to know. Perhaps one solution to the DC taxi drivers' complaint about the new fare system is to reduce the numer of licensed DC taxis.

A few pet peeves: I'm always amazed how few DC taxi drivers use their turn signals or double park wherever they feel like it. Why don't the DC police crack down on that? Also, in the summer, it's annoying that you have to beg DC drivers to turn on the a/c in a vehicle that's already uncomfortably hot. I realize they want to save gas, but other cities like NYC have systems that allow the customer to turn on the a/c directly. Other cities like NYC also allow you to pay by credit card, watch your trip on a monitor using GPS, etc. In DC, by contrast, it's not uncommon to get into a vehicle that's 10-15 yrs. old and poorly maintained.

Posted by: BChase | January 23, 2008 1:12 PM

Posted by Rich: I was just looking at the zone map and I'm amused to notice that the closed stretch of Klingle Road is used as a zone border.

Damn, when is the District going to reopen that road? It has been years since it was closed!

Posted by: Open the Road | January 23, 2008 1:30 PM

Besides the demise of the zone system, I don't understand why Marc laments the possible disappearance of individual cabbies in place of big firms. Big firms have brands, that would help me differentiate the various cabs and decide which ones to take. Right now I have no idea what I am getting with each cabbie.

I know it is easy to rail against faceless corporations, but they certainly have their uses.

Posted by: Colin | January 23, 2008 1:39 PM

Just wanted to echo the sentiments of some of my fellow citizens. The zone system is an arbitrary and secretive way to charge a fare. The few people that have posted comments in favor of the system have stated that they learned the zones and therefore, do not get taken advantage of. Tourists, unfortunately, do not have this luxury and they are usually easy prey with their guidebooks, tennis shoes and cameras. The surcharges have also been unfair way for cabbies to charge more money. Why should it cost more for three people to go from point A to point B than for just one person to travel the same route? You know something is wrong when people are striking against a system that will be fair and transparent.

Posted by: NE | January 23, 2008 1:53 PM

"The only immoral thing in life is letting a sucker keep his money." (Willie Mosconi)

If people have been being "ripped off" by the zone system, it is their own fault. The zone system is posted in every cab, not to mention online, and you can figure out how much you owe. If the driver is being dishonest, call him/her on it. It's a simple process. If you are getting ripped off, it's because you allow it to happen.

I take cabs four times a day in this city and knowing exactly how much the fare will be, regardless of traffic or street closings, is far better than wondering how much it will be with the meter. That's from a consumer perspective.

From a societal perspective, we will have less cabs in this city with meters. The money will simply not be enough for drivers to stay in business. i would submit that people working hard deserve a living wage, and $3 base fare won't do it.

The good news, this debate is finite. We will see the affects of this policy in short time. Perhaps then Marc, and the few of us on this blog who agree, will have some vindication.

Posted by: dcmick | January 23, 2008 1:54 PM

Big organizations and companies are evil. Thats why effective tomorrow, Marc will be resigning from his position and will go work at a small paper in Potomac MD.

Posted by: Jon | January 23, 2008 1:59 PM

It's all been said. Marc, you're great, but you're just plain wrong on this one. I understand the zone system, and it benefits me some of the time. But I don't know anyone who regularly takes cabs here who hasn't been ripped off. My out-of-town relatives, especially the older ones, have horror stories. And the claim that the zone map is posted in every cab? Please. It's usually in old, yellowed and cracked plastic, difficult for anyone to decipher, let alone a passenger at night or the tourist or businessperson who visits our fair city only occasionally. The point about keeping cabbies in business is also a non-starter. I don't care how high the meter rate is set--I would be happy to pay more if I could be confident we weren't being taken for a ride, uh, cheated.

Posted by: weewinkie | January 23, 2008 2:34 PM

The consequence of not allowing cabbies to make a livable wage can only have one outcome, a shortage of cabs and one less transportation option in a city that can't afford to lose one.

Some of the same people weighing in here about this issue think that they are so valuable to society that market forces should be the sole determinant of their salaries but there should be strict price controls on those who provide them services so the prices don't exceed what they think they should pay. Before long you'll be trudging home on foot or Metro from the bars and people will be demanding to know why there aren't more cabs.

Posted by: CW | January 23, 2008 2:40 PM

Somehow thousands of New York cabbies manage to struggle by on less than the DC cabbies will make under the new system. AND the NY cabbies have to buy a medallion, which costs more than $100,000.

If NY cabbies can do it (where cost of living is a lot higher and the $100,000 taxi medallion is a huge cost), why can't DC cabbies?

Posted by: Hillman | January 23, 2008 2:44 PM

The argument about less cabbies is a Joke.

1) There are more than enough cabs on the street (downtown) as it is. No change in fares will result in cabs wanting to travel to the poorer parts of DC. Cabs will hang out where the money is, and thats NW.

2) DC is really out of whack with the rest of the western world as far as cab prices. If Cab drivers have to adjust their standard of living because they can't rip people off, thats not my problem. They now make a fair wage, the one before was robbery.

3) Less cabs, and cleaner corporate cabs can lead to cleaner air and less clogged streets. Thats a win win for everyone.

Posted by: Jon | January 23, 2008 3:07 PM

Everyone should buy a Vespa and be done with cabs forever. That would leave only the old people, who are better left at home!

Posted by: John | January 23, 2008 3:12 PM

The zone system is HORRIBLE!

I've lived in DC for nearly 15 years and travelled the same routes in taxis over and over, and have been quoted so many different fares for the same route it's ridiculous. Sometimes the cabbie claims 2 zones, next time it's 3 zones, sometimes - OH! - it's only 1 zone! I guess if you like adventure and haggling like you're in some 3rd world open-air crafts market, it's a lot of fun. Otherwise, it's awful.

Bring on the meters!!!

Posted by: PQ | January 23, 2008 3:53 PM

Fisher, stop cashing those checks from the DC Cabbie Lobby and start reporting. The old system was a ripoff that did a disservice to this city. The change to a fare system LIKE EVERY OTHER MODERN CITY is a good thing. If cabbies in other cities can make a living, so can the ones in DC. As for the ones who supposedly can't make a living at it, well, guess what, no one is guaranteed a certain type of job. If you can't make it as a cabbie, go do something else.

Posted by: ep | January 23, 2008 4:06 PM

As usual, marc Fisher doesn't know what he is talking about. Fact: the zone system is unfair and confusing. Fact: most riders don't like it. Fact: most riders want to try the meter system. As usual, Fisher is more interested in rabble-rousing than progress.

Posted by: DC Bill | January 23, 2008 4:07 PM

I don't understand what the problem with meters are. You pay for distance and time. Very logical. If it works in pretty much every other major city, it should work for DC. I think that once DC gets used to it, 99% of the population will wonder how we ever did without it.

A question, though. What happens when the cabbies don't have their meters installed by the deadline? Free rides?? (cause I sure as heck ain't going to pay a zone fare once meters are the way to pay)

Posted by: jms | January 23, 2008 4:54 PM

Sorry to have to pile on, Marc, but you're wrong on this issue. So very, very wrong!

Posted by: Mr. T in DC | January 23, 2008 5:08 PM

Marc, you are WAY off on this one. Have you been riding in the back of the Mystery Machine?

The DC Taxi system has always been one of the most broken items in DC.

And to the people who think that zones are fare as long as you know the system, you are wrong! Even when you know the system, you regularly have to fight with your cabbie at the end of every trip! Does that sound like a good system or a broken one?

Posted by: cmc | January 23, 2008 5:09 PM

You know, if the electric company guaranteed that it would "probably" be cheaper and easier for you overall if they did away with meters (think of the cost savings!)and did a bill based on average mean temperatures in your house and the region for the month (which, if you had any brains, could just, you know, keep track of yourself), would you want to give up your meter and trust the electric company to just calculate your bill out of a system that would NOT be convenient to the casual user to figure out(even if it might be cheaper overall)?

It's not just about something being "cheaper" or easy for a few "dedicated" people. It's about building a system people can easily understand and have confidence in.

Posted by: Alex | January 23, 2008 6:41 PM

Go DCmarathoner -
"It just seems that when a person gets into a cab, if they can't understand the zone system, they automatically assume that they are getting ripped off. Well, I understand the zone system PERFECTLY, and 99% of the time, the cabbie quotes me the correct price. And I wait for them to tell me the price. The rare times they quote me too high, I correct them. But generally, cabbies are honest people." I've not taken DC cabs recently, but never had a problem when I did.

As my late husband used to say about Barry "at least he's not MY mayor", I'd say the same thing about Fenty, particulary on this one.

Posted by: Observing in Alexandria | January 23, 2008 7:54 PM

Even the blogger "Mad DC Cabbie" doesn't agree with the zone system Marc, I am still trying to understand your Analogy.

But for the guy Eric W who wished bad things to happen to are a complete idiot and an evil person to say something like that and I hope it wouldn't come back to bite you.

Posted by: Trish | January 23, 2008 9:27 PM

I think what some people fail to understand is basic economic truth that when the prices go down the volume will go up...because it will be cheaper to take a cab more people will do so...the drivers have the possibility to make more money but they might have to make multiple trips instead of making all on one ride where they rip someone off.

As a decade long resident of DC I have had tons of horror stories about cabbies trying to set you up... I know all the zone boundaries and every time without fail the cabbies have tried to overcharge me. Ridiculous...thank you Mayor Fenty for fixing this lets make sure its enforced (meters by April 1??)and get some oversight on all these hacks...

Posted by: Chris | January 24, 2008 9:58 AM

I think its perfectly normal to wish bad things for people who defend corruption.

Posted by: Eric W. | January 24, 2008 1:42 PM

I'm rejoining the discussion because I just used the Post's calculator to price the trip I make most often in DC: from my office to medical appointments at GWU hospital. The meter fare comes up $5.75 and the zone fare comes up $6.50. I am now invariably charged $8.50 (plus tip, of course) for that trip, and I offer that fact in support of my earlier contention that DC cabbies are licensed highway robbers.

Posted by: Walter | January 25, 2008 9:16 AM

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