Rafi Mohammed

What's Causing Washington DC Cab Drivers to Protest and Strike? A New Pricing Plan...of course!

Posted on May 15th, 2008 (0 Comments)

One of Washington DC’s charms has always been its byzantine taxi system. Taking a DC cab is always an adventure: multiple taxis fight for your patronage, speed limits are optional, drivers are always up for discussing politics, and the chances of your taxi breaking down before making it to your destination are roughly 50/50. And for most of us, the biggest mystery of taking a taxi in Washington is wondering “how much is my fare going to be?”

Prior to May 1, fares for taxi trips within Washington were determined by a zone system comprised of 8 zones and 23 sub zones. Your fare was determined by how many zones were crossed to arrive at your destination. It’s a complex pricing system - even having been a DC resident for 4 years and taking countless taxis, I never fully mastered this fare system. Established in 1931, the legend is that the zone system was constructed in a manner that benefited congress – as the 4.5 drive between the U.S. Capital and Georgetown (where many lawmakers live) is just one zone.

Of course, one additional feature of the zone system is to umm, how can I say this politely, charge different prices to different customers. For the same trip, tourists (as well as zone challenged residents like myself) were often charged higher prices than those who had mastered the zone system. In writing legislation requiring a shift from zones to meters, Senator Carl Levin (MI) claimed, “In my own experience, I have encountered probably 10 different cab fares for the same trip.”

However, if you assume that drivers charge the right fare, there are benefits of a zone system. These pluses include reducing the “fare uncertainty” of taking a cab and cabbies have an incentive to take the quickest route to your destination. And finally, thrifty riders can reap discounts by strategically beginning and ending their trips in a manner that minimizes the zones crossed.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty ruled that as of May 1 2008, taxi cabs were to charge metered distance based rates. Chief amongst Mayor Fenty’s reasons for changing this pricing structure change were: (1) DC was the only major city where taxis charged by zones instead of meters and (2) Tourists, who pump more than $5 billion a year into the local economy, were (rightfully) intimidated by the zone system. This change angered DC cab drivers who are voicing their outrage via law suits and one day strikes.

As we all know, change is hard. That said, DC taxi drivers are getting a good deal – their $3 starting rate is higher than those in Boston ($1.75), Chicago ($2.25) and New York ($2.50). And while I know metered pricing is for the better, I’ll miss the fare negotiations I used to have (“I know my destination is three zones but how about only charging me for 2”) which added to the fun of taking a cab in DC.

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