City on a Hill: Farewell to cheating cabbies

January 24, 2008

The past few months have been quite an emotional rollercoaster for the District’s taxi riders—and the Taxicab Industry Group’s latest call for strikes ensures that it won’t end any time soon. With Mayor Adrian Fenty’s decision to switch to metered fares to be instituted April 6, the strike is largely for show. And what it shows is that the first priority for many cab drivers is preserving their ability to rip off their customers.

After gleefully learning on October 17 that Fenty had decided to abandon the arcane zone system and institute time-and-distance meters, riders sobered up a few weeks later when Fenty announced the new rates: an exorbitant $4 flag-drop fee (New York City’s is only $2.50), additional passenger surcharges and doubled fares during snow emergencies.

But after an outraged D.C. Residents for Reasonable Taxi Fares collected more than 2,000 signatures for their online petition opposing the plan, Fenty decided to reevaluate. The result, which Fenty announced January 16, was a heartening novelty in D.C. politics: a well thought-out compromise. The drop fee was reduced to $3, the additional passenger surcharge was eliminated and the snow emergency fare is only bumped up 25 percent.

“It wasn’t everything we asked for but it was, I believe, a decent compromise,” D.C. Residents for Reasonable Taxi Fares co-founder Jack Jacobson said. “It’s certainly better than the original rates.”

For some D.C. taxi drivers, though, a sound resolution is not good enough: they want to preserve the zone system that allows them to profit off the ignorance and confusion of their customers. Despite the fact that the drop fee is higher than that of any other major city, the Taxicab Industry Group is urging drivers to go on strike one day a week.

Though cab drivers certainly have the right to strike, they are not gaining any public sympathy by doing so. Claims that the meter system will impoverish drivers are merely speculative, given that meters have yet to be installed. In fact, it is entirely possible that drivers will make more money under the meter system. The fact that many drivers are still clinging to the zone system has led many to conclude that there is a connection between drivers who strike and drivers who habitually cheat their customers.

“Those people on strike are the ones cheating anyway,” Evelyn Ruiz, owner of the Classic Cab Association, said. “I think those honest drivers will be making the same amount of money and the cheaters will be making less money.”

Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, suggested that drivers give the new system a try before claiming economic injury. After a few months, if they feel rates need to be adjusted, LaGasse said drivers should stifle their urge to strike and instead take up a more serviceable (and less sensational) approach: document economic loss and file a petition for a fare increase based on “cold hard facts, not rhetoric.”

Hopefully D.C. cab riders and honest drivers haven’t been too emotionally drained by this ordeal. The proposed meter system, which, even if it needs tweaking, is a vast improvement over the zones and the original plan. The threat of strikes shouldn’t dampen the excitement over the guarantee of a reasonably priced cab ride in the District.

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