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Taxi reform is popular for residents, not for drivers

DC taxi fares will soon rise, but many surcharges which annoy riders will go away. A pending bill would also bring more modern technology to DC taxis to improve customer service. Riders overwhelmingly support many reforms, though they only like fare increases if service also improves. Drivers are skeptical that such changes are unnecessarily expensive.

Photo by minwoo on Flickr.

Today, the DC Taxicab Commission approved a set of fare changes that increase the per-mile charge by 14% and the waiting charge by 67%. However, the per-passenger fee, the fees for large bags and small animals, the $1 fuel surcharge are all going away.

These aren't the only changes that may come for DC taxis. Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced legislation in December to require credit card readers with printable receipts, security alert buttons, and GPS tracking devices in every cab. It would also require taxi companies to adopt a uniform citywide color scheme, purchase additional fuel-efficient vehicles, and provide drivers with customer service training.

The commission plans to fund these initiatives with a surcharge of 50¢ per trip. Ron Linton, chairman of the commission, sees the new surcharge as a critical element of the proposed bill. "The creation of the Consumer Service Fund insures that funds obtained through a passenger-paid surcharge will be used to improve the quality of services for passengers," said Linton.

Other items in the bill would allow the taxicab commission to upgrade the fleet, carry out more inspections, provide incentives for drivers to purchase fuel-efficient cabs, and expand taxi service to all areas of the city. The commission also plans to add more robust tracking systems to monitor overall taxicab performance.

Survey showed public support for reforms

Cheh's office conducted an online survey about the provisions of the bill and taxi service in general. Responses by more than 4,000 metro area taxi riders showed that only 22% of respondents thought that the quality of taxi service in the District was good or excellent. 69% said it is worse than other major cities. The proposed taxi reform legislation and the requirement to accept credit cards found overwhelming support with 94% and 93% positive responses respectively.

In the survey, a majority of respondents supported higher taxi fares only if the quality of service improved. Belinda Li, a Chicago-based management consultant, testified at the hearing on Cheh's bill that the additional costs to hail a cab would put a burden on riders and potentially drive people away from riding taxicabs.

The hospitality industry supports the reforms as well. According to industry data, the District hosts over 17 million visitors a year, generating roughly $6 billion in expenditures in the city. An improved taxi service would allow visitors to get to their hotels and other destinations safely and efficiently.

"This is something we have been working on for quite some time," said Solomon Keene, President of the DC Hotel Association. "DC is a world class city so we want to make sure that we provide a world class taxi service."

Drivers less enthusiastic

Though the public supports the reforms, taxi companies have expressed opposition to the bill, citing cost concerns. The industry generally opposed the change from a zoning system four years ago to a meter system, and sees this new proposal as further undermining their ability to make a living.

At a public hearing earlier this year, drivers testified that they felt the effects of the bill on the industry were not fully taken into account before the bill was drafted. They questioned how the fund will be managed and whether drivers will be compensated adequately for expenses incurred to retrofit their vehicles. It is also unclear how soon the reforms can be implemented, since funding from the surcharge won't be available right away.

Other proposals may also affect taxi service in the District. In addition to Cheh's bill, Council chairman Kwame Brown introduced a bill to require that 10% of all cabs be wheelchair-accessible within 4 years.

Long-term questions remain

Beyond the short-term issues of fare increases and who bears the costs of implementing the reforms, there are unaddressed long-term concerns about the management of the industry. When Tommy Wells chaired the council committee with oversight over taxis, he expressed interest in making more major structural changes, possibly abolishing the taxicab commission and moving responsibility into DDOT and/or DCRA. However, Cheh has not pursued this approach.

In addition, the Council also considered and dropped the concept of a medallion system. Taxicab systems in major cities like New York and Chicago restrict the number of licenses issued and allow for licenses to be transferred between owners. In an open system like the District's it is relatively easy to operate a taxicab. As a result, independent operators saturate the market, making it easier for people on the street to get cabs, but driving down earnings for each driver.

In testimony at the public hearing, Belinda Li said that the District has one of the highest taxicab per-capita ratios in the country (12 per 1,000 residents), compared to Chicago (2.6 per 1,000 residents) and New York (1.6 per 1,000 residents). "The proposed bill," Li said, "does not restrict new cab drivers and does nothing to address the current oversupply issue." Not all residents may agree with Li about whether there is an "oversupply" today.

By choosing to put off addressing these fundamental challenges, the council will likely be forced to revisit taxi reform in the not-too-distant future. Until then, the reforms in the current bill will modernize the taxi fleet and make for a more pleasant cab ride in the nation's capital. Riders will be paying more, but should find that fewer surcharges make the final price less confusing as well.

Noel Popwell is the Founder and Principal of Gold Reef Data Solutions, a consultancy focused on non-profits and trade/membership associations. Noel earned his Bachelor of Arts in economics at Hunter College in New York and completed his Master of Public Administration at the American University in Washington, DC.  


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It's pathetic really that while New York City is setting the standard for greener, more rider friendly taxis, Washington DC's Third World taxi industry is still sore about requiring meters and fighting minimal quality standards.

Write to Vince Gray and tell him you've had enough!

by Bert on Apr 11, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

I think the best thing is all interoperability with Arlington.

Big picture is this is a town of a lot of small independent cabbies. They are doing a hard job, not making a lot of money, and don't want to spend on their vehicles.

At the same time, there is a large population of users who wants:

1. Nicer cars
2. Credit card
3. On call service

Arlington can provide all 3. Allow DC cabs to pick up fares in Arlington, and Arlington cabs pick up fares in DC (they can already on call)

by charlie on Apr 11, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

After the mess just getting meters, it's hard not to assume that anything the taxi drivers oppose is probably a good thing. In this case it bears out; fighting credit card readers and decent customer service? Sounds like they need new leadership and PR advisers.

by Joe on Apr 11, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

You imply that drivers want a medallion system... I don't think I've ever talked to a driver who wants one, only the owners have lobbied in favor...

by @SamuelMoore on Apr 11, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport


The problem with interoperability with other jurisdictions is that we would have to merge our regulatory structures and standardize all licensing, fares, etc. Otherwise cabs would simply register wherever regulations are more lenient and where fares are highest. You'd have to create an intergovernmental organization like WMATA to create and regulate the system and I really don't see that happening.

by Adam L on Apr 11, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

@Bert - the New York requirement of one car is an insult. The car is "designed by Nissan" and looks hideous. Why did NYC choose to slap American workers in the face by choosing a Japanese company? Oh right; Bloomberg.

Cabbies should choose their own car. They pay for gas; let them make the fuel efficiency/total cost choice.

by Chris on Apr 11, 2012 1:25 pm • linkreport

DC's taxi system is awful, but a medallion system would only make it worse. Imagine the current problems, *plus* a government-imposed limit on the number of cabs as a way to take money from consumers and give it to cab owners (not drivers, as @SamuelMoore pointed out). It's rent-seeking at its very basest.

I like a lot about Cheh's ideas, but ultimately, the solution is to open the market up more, not less, for example by making it easier for Arlington and Alexandria cabs to operate freely in the city and force DC cabs to compete on quality and service, not just availability. And for the love of God, stop trying to fight Uber!

by Jon M. on Apr 11, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

What is the reasoning behind making all cabs the same color?

by goldfish on Apr 11, 2012 1:47 pm • linkreport

charlie's idea is interesting, but sadly unlikely. It'd be worth exploring.

2. Belinda Li evidently has learned from the book "How to lie with statistics." The issue with taxi service isn't per capita number of cabs but relates to the number of visitors in the city. Plus, whether or not taxis are equally distributed throughout the city.

Both Chicago and NYC claim about 50 million visitors/year. DC between 17 and 20 million. While their base populations are significantly higher than DC, it's somewhat irrelevant to the number of taxis issue.

But the general thing about this process that bugs me is that there is no substantive research on the subject, and lack of focus on the general structural issues, that DDOT should do taxi regulation, that there is no taxi service transportation plan, that taxis aren't even mentioned in the transportation element of the Comp. Plan, that there needs to be hospitality training for taxi drivers, etc.

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

So the fees for bags remain. Will there be any expectation that drivers will actually help with those bags in return for the fees?

And I take it they will still be allowed to talk constantly on hands-free phones.

by Gray on Apr 11, 2012 1:51 pm • linkreport

Taxis and their drivers here suck. They are often rude and dishonest. A pretty car or a credit card reader won't change that, but at least it will make the experience less painful.

by MJ on Apr 11, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

@Gray: they "help" by getting out of their set and opening the trunk.

by goldfish on Apr 11, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

@goldfish: The last time I took a DC cab to the airport, the cabbie refused to get out of his seat. I guess he thought just popping the trunk was all he needed to do.

When we asked that he actually lift the bags out for us, he gave back the tip rather than actually do so.

He did get out of the car to yell at us afterward, though. Odd guy...

by Gray on Apr 11, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

This is a very small step in the right direction. Though I don't know if "customer service" training will do anything for the poor overall service in the city. Thank the heavens for Taxi Magic and my ability to hail a VA cab when I go home. DC cabs won't take you and when they do their cars are in horrible shape. What does the Arlington taxi commission do so differently?

by TeganAnn on Apr 11, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

Apparently, "[i]n 1967, New York City ordered all "medallion taxis" be painted yellow to help cut down on unofficial drivers and make official taxicabs more readily recognizable." [wikipedia]

That's consistent with my experience in other cities, like Beijing-- where foreign residents are advised only to take taxis painted in approved color-scemes (yellow-striped or red if I remember right). There are other cab colors, but they aren't allowed to pick up street hails, and are often crooks.

by Steven H on Apr 11, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

@Steven H: thanks for the info. But since DC is not going to implement medallions, there is no need to guard against this by requiring that all cabs are the same color.

It just seems like needless regimentation that will add cost but not add any benefits.

by goldfish on Apr 11, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

Really one of the biggest improvements that could be made would be a single telephone number to call a cab throughout the district. Madrid, for example, has lots of independent operators but they all dispatch through a central system. The benefit to users would be clear: single number access to multiple operators which should usually result in a quicker pickup.

Perhaps DC could consider implementing such a system, but only for taxis that meet certain minimum standards, using the likely increase in business as an incentive for operators to upgrade their vehicles and service standards.

by phil on Apr 11, 2012 3:17 pm • linkreport

TeganAnn -- you can "order" (make a phone call for pickup) a VA taxi to come get you in DC, but you can't "hail" (stick your arm out while standing on a city street) a VA taxi running on a DC street to pick you up.

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2012 3:46 pm • linkreport

This 'reform' is ridiculous. Vote with your money. DC taxi service sucks = no tips. Ever.

by JD on Apr 11, 2012 3:59 pm • linkreport

@ Chris: Why did NYC choose to slap American workers in the face by choosing a Japanese company?

NYC should not choose the best product on the market? Nissan has no plants in the US and no American employees? Wow. I learn something every day here.

by Jasper on Apr 11, 2012 4:10 pm • linkreport

Actually the Nissan taxis will be made in Mexico.

Not that All-American FORD was any better - the transit connect vans are made in Turkey.

by MLD on Apr 11, 2012 4:18 pm • linkreport

Nissan has no plants in the US and no American employees? Wow. I learn something every day here.

lol..Nissan does has a plant in Mississippi.

by HogWash on Apr 11, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

goldfish, while it is rare, I have seen unlicensed taxis in DC. Given that I've seen them, operating outside of the city's tourist core, and they tried desperately to get me to use them and convince me that I was wrong about the city requiring a license, sticker, and meter, I imagine that there are more of them operating, preying on tourists who don't have the benefit of living here/knowing the rules. While the sticker helps, it's not as obvious as a color. Painting all the cabs the same color would allow DC to advertise to tourists "Always take a [COLOR] cab, they are the only ones licensed to do business in the city." And hack regulators could more easily identify cheats either without the proper color cab or with the right color but no sticker.

Having traveled abroad to places where crooked taxi drivers are commonplace, I am well-aware of the dangers (both physical and financial) of unlicensed cabs, and don't want visitors to my city exposed to this risk. Moan and whine as I might about tourists, I do want them to have a positive experience in DC (I just wish they'd stop making MY experiences so negative in the process).

by Ms. D on Apr 11, 2012 4:56 pm • linkreport


I like that idea. Seems like a way to satisfy customers who want better cabs.

by Rob on Apr 11, 2012 5:03 pm • linkreport

One idea I had and submitted to Ms. Cheh via her survey is to restrict the areas of downtown, the Mall, most of Georgetown, and around the U.S. Capitol to cabbies who obtain a permit to operate in the areas where there are so many cabs (taxi overkill zones!). Any cab could operate in all other areas of the District except downtown, the Mall, most of Georgetown, and around the U.S. Capitol.

This allows cabs who don't obtain the permit to serve more underserved areas and restricts taxi congestion in the core -- to help stop cabs from blocking buses, bikes, and traffic on H, I, K, 14th, 16th, Pennsylvania, Constitution, Independence, etc... in the core.

by Transport. on Apr 11, 2012 6:31 pm • linkreport

"They questioned how the fund will be managed and whether drivers will be compensated adequately for expenses incurred to retrofit their vehicles."

" "The proposed bill," Li said, "does not restrict new cab drivers and does nothing to address the current oversupply issue." "

These two quotes seem to answer themselves. Require the taxis to upgrade. If they don't they don't get a license. Voila - we take care of both "who pays" and the ostensible oversupply. Really, the gall of asking who should pay the improvements to cabs to make them kinda sorta as good as other major US cities is impressive. Why, the taxi owners, that's who. And where would they get that money? From taxi customers. WHo would also enjoy the benefits from having 1st-World-style (1.5 World?) taxis for a change.

by Paula Product on Apr 11, 2012 8:08 pm • linkreport

First, while DC does not have a medallion "cap" like New York, there is a moratorium on new licenses which is functionally similar. Further, according to the DCTC website, the class at UDC cab drivers are required to take before being issued a license is "closed until further notice." And we all remember Councilman Graham's brush with bribery over cab license restrictions. (His Chief of Staff was arrested, for those who don't remember)

These are bad policies. DC should move to a "shall issue" system.

I don't know what Chicago-based "management consultant" Belinda Lei is talking about with respect to "oversupply." But based on her testimony summarized above, website, and LinkedIn profile, my wager is that she is a lobbyist hired by the taxi cab industry. She is only listed as a public witness on the hearing witness list.

Notwithstanding who she is, there is no "oversupply."

Sounds to me like the DC version of the Manhattan pizza wars.

Also, what's the deal with the reporter-style format here recently?

by WRD on Apr 11, 2012 9:24 pm • linkreport

The biggest problem in DC is that you cannot file a complaint about a taxi ride without the name of the driver. The DC Council could improve the situation by compelling the Taxicab Commission to accept a complaint identified with the car number or plate number, and time of day, in lieu of the name of a driver who does not feel like revealing his name.

by Turnip on Apr 11, 2012 10:10 pm • linkreport

The 2nd paragraph says that the per-mile charge is going up by 14%. That's not correct. It's going up by 44%. That's a huge difference.

by Rob on Apr 11, 2012 10:43 pm • linkreport

Should we start a pool on how long before the gas surcharge comes back? I say there will be a "temporary" gas surcharge again sometime before December 31, 2013.

by Jimmy on Apr 11, 2012 11:00 pm • linkreport

What if cabs had a different color license plate, instead of requiring owners to paint the whole cab? In Lebanon the official taxis have red license plates-- I found them easy to identify.

There must be some obvious reason not to do this if it hasn't come up already... seems like a no-brainer to me. Is there some regulation against issuing different-colored license plates in DC?

by MP on Apr 12, 2012 8:14 am • linkreport

@ MP:What if cabs had a different color license plate, instead of requiring owners to paint the whole cab?

This is the case in many places. On the USVIs taxis have a special taxi tag. In Aruba rental cars and cabs have license plates starting with specific letters. Other Caribbean islands have similar arrangements. In the Netherlands taxi license plates are blue with black letters, while regular tags are yellow with black tags. Very distinctive.

by Jasper on Apr 12, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

I don't think plates are enough - there are too many specialty license plates these days for the distinction to mean much of anything. All DC cabs have plates that begin with the letter "H" as it is.

by Alex B. on Apr 12, 2012 12:55 pm • linkreport

I question the "# of taxicabs per capita" data. The numerator should probably reflect the number of cabs on the street at any given time and the denominator should reflect the population within the cab range's footprint.

I doubt we have an oversupply of taxicab service. We probably have an oversupply of cars that are licensed hacks. In DC, lots of owner/operators work very few hours.

If we had a true over-supply then there would be downward pressure on fares and upward pressure on quality. Obviously, that's not the situation we're in.

by Ward 1 Guy on Apr 12, 2012 3:32 pm • linkreport

I don't think taxis and their drivers suck. Maybe I am just used to a bad situation, but I don't think so.

One thing no one has mentioned here (which is not surprising) is affordability. First and last I am for affordability, which we achieved by switching to the meters and which we are in danger of losing by raising the rate.

Maybe what the Arlington cabs do differently is drive on highways and not on DC's streets. Just a thought.

Turnip, you can file a complaint without a name, you just have to stick with it and be persistent. I did, and they found out who it was. Not that it was resolved completely satisfactorily but something did happen, and the cab driver was confronted about the overcharge. Not having the driver's name initially didn't affect the outcome at all.

I agree - it is only a matter of time before we see a reappearance of the gas surcharge.

I'm not sure if we had an oversupply that the fares would go down. I can't conceive of that happening, ever!

by Jazzy Taxi on Apr 12, 2012 6:02 pm • linkreport

I have no quarrel with the increase in fares. But the requirement for same color cabs is silly. What is needed is more hack inspectors to weed out the bums and folks driving "their brothers cab" without insurance. Most of the folks hacking full time are doing a good job and trying to make it. Not sure I understand the purpose of the GPS if the guy has really passed the test but maybe I am missing something.

by lucky on Apr 12, 2012 10:35 pm • linkreport

If we had a true over-supply then there would be downward pressure on fares and upward pressure on quality. Obviously, that's not the situation we're in.

I'm not sure if we had an oversupply that the fares would go down. I can't conceive of that happening, ever!

Wrong. Fares do not freely float. They are fixed by the DCTC.

by WRD on Apr 12, 2012 11:22 pm • linkreport

Now my cab fare will cost more than most cabs in DC are worth.

by Waking on Apr 14, 2012 9:52 am • linkreport

I don't think plates are enough - there are too many specialty license plates these days for the distinction to mean much of anything. All DC cabs have plates that begin with the letter "H" as it is.

If it said something obvious like "TAXI" that would make it better for residents and tourists alike -- I did not know about the "H", despiote living here for many years and taking many cabs.

by goldfish on Apr 16, 2012 12:04 pm • linkreport

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