Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Of Local Interest

Step into a DC taxicab, and you're almost guaranteed to feel like you're getting ripped off, whether you are or not. DC is about the only major U.S. city where taxi prices are determined by a "zone" system rather than by time-and-distance meters. Even if you've lived here forever (and I'm now about halfway) it's pretty much impossible to figure out the system. The zone map -- get this -- has northeast at the top, so it looks unfamiliar even to a regular rider. (The taxi commission finally came out with a map that has north at the top about a year ago, but I have yet to see it in most cabs). You're never sure how many zones you've crossed. And then the cabbies are always inventing charges for bags, fuel surcharges, and other charges that might be mythical but that might have been approved in some recent commission action you didn't notice. And of course the per-passenger charge is a longstanding headache.

And yet every now and then you do get the benefit of the system, which was (according to lore) designed to make trips cheap for high-powered lobbyists who need to jet around the capitol area. Just the other day I had to take a cab from the Omni Shoreham hotel to a restaurant in Georgetown at the height of rush hour and the trip seemed to go on forever, but only cost $8.80, I believe, and it might even have been the one-zone fare of $6.50. Whatever it was, I remember being pleasantly surprised. It was rare because feeling ripped off is so much more common.

Well, all of this is to end soon, or so says the mayor -- he announced today that D.C. cabs will have meters.

Let's just say that I'll believe it when I see it. A plan to switch to meters is announced about once every two years, in my experience, and it's never actually happened yet. Somehow the cabbies always manage to block it. They say it's because it will lead to more industry consolidation, but I believe the explanation I heard from a longtime cabbie once:

If cabs have meters, he explained, the meter keeps track of how much you earn. And if there's a record, you have to pay your income tax.


JMS said...

I've always wondered about how a switch to a meter would shape taxi driver incentives. In a city like DC where there are so many possible routes and random one-way streets, I kind of like the comfort of knowing that the driver has the incentive to get to your destination through the most efficient route possible. Once (or if!) the switch to the meter becomes effective, I wonder if I am going to have to start paying more attention to the roads that the taxi driver is taking. To give a brief anecdote, I took a taxi home from Virginia one night (therefore it was using a meter), and the taxi driver took a completely circuitous route which ended up costing me an extra $2 or so.

Of course I won't miss paying $8 for a 7 block cab ride.

Jon Siegel said...

Good point, jms, I believe the answer is that a smart taxicab commission usually deals with this by arranging for there to be a substantial initial fare at the fall of the meter's flag, which is supplemented by the smaller per-mile or per-minute charge. If these amounts are set correctly, the cabbie has an incentive to get you to your destination as efficiently as possible so as to reap the benefit of the fall-of-the-flag charge again as soon as possible.