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D.C. Taxis--No Zones, No Justice?

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who decided that he would resolve the District's seven-decade-long battle over taxi fares, thought he could get this done by personal decree--after all, he's a senator, right?

Adrian Fenty thought he could do the senator's bidding and change the taxi fare system in a matter of a few months. Hey, what could be easier than carrying out an errand for a United States senator? A mayor can do that, can't he?

So here we are, a week from the date when all D.C. taxis were finally supposed to scrap the city's ancient, beloved and loathed zone fare system and adopt the meters that nearly every other city on the planet uses to measure taxi fares. And where are we? Getting there, but in fits and starts.

The mayor took a bold stand yesterday and just as he defied predictions that he would adopt a GPS/zone fare system, so too has he now rendered inaccurate reports that he would delay the switchover to meters by five months. Fenty instead insists that every cab be equipped with a meter by May 1--or else. Well, sort of: He did slip in a bit of an out, allowing that cabbies will be inspected for meters and if they don't have them, they'll get a warning and really, really have to have them by June 1.

Will even that deadline slide? Don't bet against it: A pesky, recalcitrant fleet of cabbies has already sued the city and created deep uncertainty just by declining to buy the meters they were ordered to obtain.

A D.C. Superior Court judge this week smacked down the cabbies' lawsuit, saying that Fenty indeed had the legal authority to put Levin's power play into effect. But the judge waited so long to issue her ruling that the drivers have gained some real power; after all, if there's not enough time to acquire and install the meters by the deadline, then the District can't well force its fleet of cabs off the streets, can it? Now the cabbies are asking the courts to hold the city back yet again, pending appeal of the court's decision.

Judge Brook Hedge makes it clear in her ruling that this change in fare systems is an expression of congressional rule over the city--a Democrat's anti-democratic fiat. "The District of Columbia shall require all taxicabs licensed in the District of Columbia to charge fares by a metered system," says what the judge refers to as "the Levin law."

Quoting Levin, the judge reminds us that the senator issued his decree out of personal pique. The current system is "especially unfair to our great number of out-of-town tourists who have to cope with a complicated, confusing zone fare system," Levin said seven years ago, early in his crusade. "In my own experience, as a DC resident, I have encountered at least 10 different cab fares for the exact same trip to and from National Airport." Poor baby--he couldn't figure out the fare himself, so he'll just change the system for half a million people.

The judge, who was appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, makes clear that the District and Fenty did pretty much everything the law requires of them to change the fare system legally--public notice, hearings, a council report, the whole works. But Judge Hedge sounds as if she's leaning toward the cabbies' argument when she notes that Fenty does not have the authority to unilaterally change the fare system, since D.C. law puts that role in the hands of the mayor-appointed taxi commission.

More than 20 years ago, the Council created the taxi commission expressly to have "an agency with exclusive jurisdiction to regulate taxicabs and to establish the methodologies for fares," the judge writes.

But as with everything else regarding the District, Congress' role trumps any D.C. law, and if Levin's law mentions only the mayor as the guy in charge of completing this little task for the lords of the Hill, then by gum, it's the mayor who gets the authority to do this, even if D.C. law specifically puts such matters in the purview of the taxi commission.

"Congress could have named the [taxi commission] as specifically as it named the Mayor..., but it did not," the judge writes. "Instead, knowing the Mayor was charged with ensuring the laws be faithfully executed, Congress required the Mayor to make an affirmative decision to implement a meter system or not...."

You can read the judge's entire 24-page decision if you like this sort of thing, or you can boil it down to the two words that would easily have gotten the same message across:

"Yes, master."

The meters will eventually be installed; I feel reasonably confident in predicting that. But the cabbies have more mischief up their sleeves, not least of which is the stubborn refusal to buy the meters. Might we see extended civil disobedience on the part of the District's cabbies? Would the Fenty administration really try to keep the cabs off the streets if they're not equipped with meters? We've got months and months of taxi excitement still to come.

By Marc Fisher |  April 23, 2008; 12:18 PM ET
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Comments

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Maybe while the city is inspecting the cabs for an installed meter, they can check to see if the driver is indeed in this country legally.

Posted by: Pro Meters | April 23, 2008 1:57 PM

I say fine every one of those crooks $1,000 for breaking the law! And check to see if they paid their full income taxes for the past 10 years while their at it!

Posted by: DC Resident | April 23, 2008 2:31 PM

The only reason to fight meters is cabbies like to rip us off. In the last month, my cab fares from Capitol Hill to Rosslyn have been $8, $13, $17, and $20. After arguing each time, I end up paying $12. With meters this won't be an issue anymore.

Posted by: Alex | April 23, 2008 2:34 PM

"In my own experience, as a DC resident, I have encountered at least 10 different cab fares for the exact same trip to and from National Airport." Poor baby--he couldn't figure out the fare himself, so he'll just change the system for half a million people.

Poor baby! What on earth - he can figure out the fare, it's the cabbies who've charged him ten different amounts.
How much are they paying you? Your defense of this ridiculous system is inane.

And then to denigrate the victim. Rather classless, eh?

Posted by: Tim from Silver Spring | April 23, 2008 2:51 PM

Seriously, Mark, you're on the wrong side of this issue. As much as you want to denigrate the Senator for not being able to figure out the correct fare using the zone system, the point is that he says he was quoted 10 different prices for the trip to the airport so even if he knew the correct price, he has to argue with the cabbie each time they quote him an inflated price. That shouldn't have to be a standard part of your taxi experience and unfortunately too often it is. Based on my own experience, even knowing the correct fare is not enough because its the arguing with the cabbie that is infuriating. Even when they recant on the inflated price, it needlessly raises your blood pressure and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And thats when they actually admit that you know the correct price and back down! The meters can cut that out immediately.....

Posted by: Los | April 23, 2008 3:03 PM

"Might we see extended civil disobedience on the part of the District's cabbies?"

I don't know, but I can guarantee that you will see civil disobedience on my part when it comes to paying a tip if I get into a cab without a meter after May 1. No meter, no tip, any questions?

Posted by: DC resident | April 23, 2008 3:03 PM

Uh, I can't remember the correct fares and zone boundaries half the time (like you claim regarding Levin), but that doesn't explain why the professional cabbies can't either since they charge a different rate for most trips.

I really don't understand your defense of the current cab system Marc, nor you criticism towards Fenty. Yeah, it's a bummer that Fenty had to enact this change because of a meddling senator, but the fact is that most people were unsatisfied with the zone system (locals and visitors) and Levin's bill helped to change our inefficient system.

I for one am very excited about the switch to meters, and will probably take MORE taxis from now on.

Posted by: A-lo | April 23, 2008 3:07 PM

Marc, you wrote "Poor baby--he couldn't figure out the fare himself, so he'll just change the system for half a million people." Why do you keep insisting on blaming the victims when the problems of of zone system are brought up? I will say simply this: the switch to the meter system is confirmation of the concept Hobbes put forward in his "Leviathan". Even if I end up paying more for a taxi ride, and even if the fleet shrinks, I would prefer that to the anarchy and larceny common under the current system. To make this about the "poor baby" victims (Senator Levin's experience differs only in that he has a much greater pulpit from which to complain) or about the means through which this change occurred is to skirt the issue itself.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 23, 2008 3:13 PM

So do we actually believe that Alex argued his eight dollar Rosslyn fare UP to twelve dollars? It's just a little hard to place much credence in this rant.....

Posted by: CW | April 23, 2008 3:13 PM

How about "no meter, no customer." Seriously, if taxi customers started asking for meters as a condition for getting in the door, the meters would get installed a lot faster.

Posted by: Art Neville and his band mates | April 23, 2008 3:14 PM

From the comments above it looks like you are in the minority on this one, nor can many posters even understand your defense of the zone system. What dog do you have in this fight anyway. The District has the right to set the method, period. The cabbies can lump it or leave it. I have no sympathy for the crybaby zonies. Just like "DC Resident", cabbies that have a meter will get my busines, plain and simple. If we all turn away non-metered cabs, maybe they will shut up and get on with it. What's the saying? -- when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Don't boo-hoo all the way to the desert and back! Los and Alex are dead on -- its the 10 different quotes, not the Senator's math that is the crux of the issue.

Posted by: RedRocket | April 23, 2008 3:19 PM

My prediction:

Marc Fisher will be fighting for zone fares longer than the cabbies.

Sure, a bunch of them won't get meters installed on time, and my guess is that a good percentage of them will have failed because there aren't enough installers. And the city will end up giving those cabbies and extra couple of weeks or a month. But by July, they'll all have meters. Some time in October, Fisher will declare the meter experiment "a dismal failure that has put many working-class immigrants out of business and cost seniors untold dollars in extra fares" Meanwhile, that same article will ignore that one can still get a cab in Arlington that is clean, new, and good running condition for less.

Posted by: ah | April 23, 2008 3:27 PM

"Poor baby--he couldn't figure out the fare himself, so he'll just change the system for half a million people."

I am thankful that a Michigan Senator understands what the people of the area want unlike the out of touch reporter who was apparently paid by the Taxi lobby. Maybe the Post should raise the amount the reporters are paid so that we don't have one so seemingly corrupt.

Posted by: J | April 23, 2008 3:48 PM

The meters can't come soon enough - both for local riders and for the tourists who have been the victims of a broken system. DC's cabs have been a disgrace for years, with the confusion and rip-offs associated with the zone system matched only by the decrepit condition of many of those owner/driver cabs of which you're so fond. If the drivers don't like the deadlines, they've no one to blame but themselves with their stalling tactics. You may be the last person in town to mourn the passing of the zone system.

Posted by: Fair Fares | April 23, 2008 3:50 PM

It's not just out-of-towners. I've spent most of my life in the DC area, and I can't remember a time when I've gotten charged a fare that coincided with what the blurry zone map in the cab seemed to suggest was the right fare. As far as I can tell, DC cabbies charge whatever they think they can get away with.

So bring on the meters, and maybe I'll start patronizing cabs again.

Posted by: rt42 | April 23, 2008 4:02 PM

Marc, I really enjoy your articles but I can't understand your defense of the zone system. Like everyone else here I've had cabbies try to charge me excessive fares only to back down when I tell them that I know the zone system and know exactly how much my ride should be. While many of these drivers may be hardworking and honest, lots of them are crooks. While we're busy getting meters installed, could the city also check to make sure all of these guys have licenses?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 23, 2008 4:07 PM

I agree with those who have posted. There is no way to explain ten different price quotes for the exact same route except dishonesty on the part of the cabbies. However, even though I have only taken a cab a few times in this city, I have never been charged an outrageous price. One time I even received the same price for the same trip by two different cabbies. But then again, I don't look very affluent. They probably felt sorry for me and charged me the true price. Still, five hundred dollars for a meter is a huge sacrifice and not affordable for many cabbies who are just trying to feed their families while servicing cheap clients. Hopefully the city or cab companies are subsidizing this change (which needs to happen).

Posted by: dcp | April 23, 2008 4:13 PM

It is a shame that the question of meters has been muddied. There is no question of whether there should be meters, but whether we get ones that are GPS driven and state of the art or the same old time and distance meters that have been use for ages. I think would be a shame to not use the meters that include a map of the city with GPS location capability (in Paris some of the taxis use this, fantastic). It would be sad if instead used a system that is antiquated, means great uncertainty in terms of cost and would encourage longer and higher fares.

Councilmember Jim Graham held a hearing where many taxi drivers said they would be willing to have the zone meters. My guess the effort to force taxi drivers to use the antiquated system of time and distance meters is punishment for perceived and real wrongs. But this is a self destructive effort against working people rather than a constructive effort to have a better system that benefits everyone.

Promote smart GPS meters that print out the receipt with locations and give cabbies accurate maps of the city. See the web site: http://citizenatlas.dc.gov/atlasapps/taxifare.aspx to get a look.

Posted by: Daniel | April 23, 2008 4:19 PM

I'm sick of arguing the right fares.

I'm simply not taking cabs anymore.

Posted by: MNMNT | April 23, 2008 4:24 PM

Like Senator Levin, I have also been charged varying fares for the same exact trip. (I've also had cabs lock their doors on me and tell me they are on break -- even though they are in a taxi line -- because I want to go across town at rush hour). The point is, when a customer gets in a cab, they shouldn't have to argue with the driver to get the right fare. When I go to CVS or Starbucks or Target, I pay what is on the tag and that's that. No argument. We both know what to expect, and it makes for a much more pleasant experience. It should be the same for cabs in this city.

Posted by: Kalorama Triangle | April 23, 2008 4:30 PM

A long time ago the Post ran a story (probably in the Outlook section) where the writer provided detail and the citation for an existing DC law which required taxicab meters.

Everybody simply ignored the law for decade after decade.

It's been a long time comin'; even though it's actually been here a long time.

On June 2nd, everybody in DC should take at least a short cab ride to celebrate a victory for all consumers.

Unfortunately we all know that shortly thereafter, somebody in DC will set-up an undeground business in rigging meters.

Posted by: NoVA | April 23, 2008 4:39 PM

Those of you who are predicting that the cabbies won't back off are correct: A group grandiosely calling itself "The Coalition of All DC Taxicab Companies and Associations" has just announced a citywide taxi strike for this Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The announcement says that the cabbies do not oppose meters, but rather favor the zone meters that would be attached to a GPS system that would determine how many zones a passenger has passed through.
Given the mixed results from the hacks' previous strikes, I wouldn't put a whole lot of emphasis on the potential impact of this one, but consider yourselves warned--it could be tricky out there on Friday.

Posted by: Fisher | April 23, 2008 4:39 PM

Mr. Fisher is a classic Washingtonian.....the old way is always the best way; deny anything is ever wrong, blame everything on Congress and, if that isn't enough, make something up. He's more of a relic than most of the cabs rattling down the street.

Posted by: Logan | April 23, 2008 4:51 PM

"In my own experience, as a DC resident, I have encountered at least 10 different cab fares for the exact same trip to and from National Airport." Poor baby--he couldn't figure out the fare himself, so he'll just change the system for half a million people.

Poor baby! What on earth - he can figure out the fare, it's the cabbies who've charged him ten different amounts."

If you go to the the DC Government's fare calculator (http://citizenatlas.dc.gov/atlasapps/taxifare.aspx) and plug in ANY DC address for a starting point with National Airport as the end, and it will show the starting and ending points on the map with the message "Your Taxi Fare cannot be calculated." If the fare cannot be calculated by the very group that set up the system, how can one argue that the judge is foolish for not be able to do so? Or how can ANY fare the cabbie demands not be fair game if there is no basis on which to set it? Meters will AT LEAST allow some objective calculation for fares beginning in DC and terminating outside of DC.

Posted by: Woodley Park | April 23, 2008 7:41 PM

And how about the customers? If we ride in a cab that does not have a meter, do we have to pay? I don't see why, or how.

Since the zone system won't exist any more there will be no way to calculate a charge.

The cabbies will be giving people rides for free with no legal way to force us to pay them unless they have a meter.

Posted by: SoMD | April 24, 2008 7:49 AM

All D.C. cab drivers are crooks, plain and simple. I have never once taken a cab to my destination without those bastards trying to rip me off. I've taken cabs all over the city 3 times a week for 7 years! That's over 1,000 trips! And can you believe I have not yet once had the proper fare quoted to my by the driver. Shame on them and the zone system... so unfortunate.

( I actually feel like D.C. owes me money for all of the overpaid cab rides, about $3,024 to be exact. Since $3 is about the average overcharge I've had to pay over the years, D.C. should repay me that money, but I digress.)

I'm so excited about the meters I just don't know what to do with myself. Whoo Hoo!!! Good job Fenty!

Posted by: 9.5" | April 24, 2008 12:09 PM

Oh, and I also agree with the 1st poster "Pro Meters"...

Please be sure these bastard cab drivers are here legally. I'm tired of paying for Ethiopian and Nigerian criminal's families.

And do you bastard cab drivers have the proper licensing to even operate a cab? Do they even have Cab Driving Camp in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Nigeria?

Posted by: 9.5" | April 24, 2008 12:19 PM

I was going to post here to protest against the idea that the cabbies are somehow victims here, and that the Senator was just being a brat, but I see that many others have taken care of that task for me quite competently and eloquently. I will chine in that it's stupid and immature for the cabbies to continue their war of attrition against the decision. Unilateral or not, it needed to happen. The "zone system" was a ridiculous anomaly that always made no sense to me or anyone else I know. The cabbies are just delaying the inevitable now, and I say fine them to the full extent of the law after June 1st if they are w/o a meter. Watch how fast they clamor to get them installed then!

Posted by: Jax75420 | April 24, 2008 3:13 PM

I think its a disgrace that congress has to taken DC over because of $2. The real issue is that they don't want to pay brown people a dime. They have jacked our sons off to war, uped our homes to the point their unaffordable, mis-spent our funds, aND RAISED our fuel prices while the dollar has shrunk to a new all time low.

When all of you time distance supporters can't get a cab, (there is no way we as drivers can support ourselves on $3 in this market) then you will understand that it was the small force of men who put up their dollars to get you from point A to point B.

They have taken your schools, your vote, your money and now your friend in a time of need...A DC CAbbie.

Guess your left with his patriot act idiot.

Posted by: DC CABBIE | April 25, 2008 12:31 AM

Bastard D.C. cab drivers...

Posted by: Milf | April 25, 2008 12:40 PM

Ok, you people are all stupid or you are all Senators and Congressmen (and women) who have to do only short trips in a cab. If you have ever done any kind of extensive cab riding, then you will know that the zone system favors people who have to go across the city, especially when they have to go at peak times. I have used the online calculation of zone fares and never had a problem plugging in addresses and getting fares. Only once have I had a DC cabbie try to charge me more than I thought he should and I pay less in a DC cab from work to home than I do in a VA cab from home to work by at least $3 (when going out of state, DC cabs use a mileage system). All of this is set up to make the short trips that are required by Capitol Hill peeps cheaper and to screw the rest of us over.

Posted by: MW | April 25, 2008 1:33 PM

MARC, Driving a Cab is not a right. It is a privilege. Cab drivers in DC have abused this privilege over and over. I do not feel sorry for these mostly non-DC residents who cannot do what they do in MD or VA. How many more tourists need to be swindled, minorities need to be neglected, and taxes go unpaid before you change your mind. Not only do we need meters but we also need a Taxi authority with police powers to require honest, clean and most of all safe cabs.

Posted by: DC Native | April 25, 2008 3:42 PM

Under the current system, short-trips subsidize longer trips.

DC already had too many cabs, I can't wait to see fewer around, there'll be less pollution and we'll witness more people walking around.

Posted by: Kenneth | April 26, 2008 10:19 PM

I was a DC taxicab driver while attending American University and I had been taught in my first year in college not to ever address an issue without first responsibly researching the facts of that issue. (google.com- "Karl Rudder's Blog)
Congress,the DC government and the news media have failed for over 75 years to ever exercise their research skills as they've wasted years and millions of dollars that only allowed the zone system to remain in operation due to very shallow, misleading "studies" and agencies responsible for regulating the DC Taxicab Industry.
The Truth can be hidden but it cannot be changed.

Posted by: Karl Rudder | April 28, 2008 3:08 AM

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