It took Nicole Wittman 19 hours to get to Washington, D.C. by plane from her home in Australia. But standing outside the gates to the South Lawn of the White House, Wittman talks not of her long journey or of the grandeur of the house of the leader of the free world. Wittman would rather comment on the District’s taxicab system.
The taxi driver who took us to our hotel is crazy, she said. He swerved all over the road. We almost got into an accident.
In a city that has more cabs per capita than any other city in America, D.C. is a place where tourists like Wittman do not wait long for a cab. If all of D.C.’s cabs were operated by one company, the firm would employ over 6,200 people. But Wittman, who claims that there are plenty of cabs in Sydney, is still not impressed.
I think a lot of the taxis are dilapidated, says Kathy Wood, another White House visitor. They openly break the law by always making illegal U-turns. Some (drivers) don’t even speak English.
Dawit Abebe, who owns a cab and is a member of the Reliable Cab Association, says Wood’s criticism is off base.
I have a beautiful, clean car, he said, pointing to plush leather seats and a freshly-vacuumed interior. There are lots more good cars on the street.
Abebe is also quick to praise the unconventional way District taxis assess fares.
Washington’s taxi drivers use a system unique to most U.S. cities. Instead of charging by mileage, cab companies assess trip fares within the city by the number of zones crossed.
Students should be aware that while most of GW’s campus is in Zone 1 of the city’s eight numbered zones, 22nd Street marks the boundary of Zone 2A. An additional $1.50 is charged to a trip for crossing the zone.
The zone system is good for both the customer and the driver, Abebe says. It saves the passenger money and is easy for the driver to calculate.
Freshman John Culclasure said the zone system does not work as well as Abebe claims because the system makes it easier for the passenger to get ripped off.
You have to watch out because the taxi driver may try to screw you by taking you though too many zones, he said.
Despite Culclasure’s worries, a 1996 U.S. News & World Report study found that D.C. cab companies do not overcharge passengers more than most major cities. The study reported overcharges of about $5 on runs to District airports.
The U.S. News study advises passengers in New York to ask a taxi dispatcher for the best route to their destination.
A driver who takes the Belt Parkway from JFK to midtown, for example, can add $20 to a $25 to $30 fare, according to the report.
U.S. News reporters also said they were overcharged $5 for a similar run in Chicago, cheated by limousine drivers in San Francisco and received occasional $20 overcharges in Boston.
The D.C. Cab Commission – the government agency charged with overseeing all taxicabs in the District – reports that passengers are overcharged 17 percent of the time and undercharged 10 percent of the time.
Drivers and passengers who praise the zone system are quick to point out some of the system’s flaws.
While a trip from Thurston Hall on F Street to Georgetown’s M Street with one passenger costs $4, a two-block trip with two people to the White House from Thurston Hall costs $8.
Some people, like freshman Yael Galena, are content with the District’s cab system despite its deficiencies. Galena cites one of her first experiences in a D.C. cab that she took from her from Thurston Hall to a downtown nightclub.
In the taxi, we were all singing the Spice Girl’s Spice Up Your Life and the taxicab driver started singing with us and clapping his hands, Galena said. I’d take a taxi again any day.