Drivers protest switch to meters

D.C. taxi drivers launched a strike last Thursday as part of an ongoing protest of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s decision to switch from zones to metered cab fares.

The 24-hour strike, the second in two weeks, involved about 75 percent of taxi drivers in the city, said Nathan Price, chairman of the Coalition of Cab Drivers, Companies and Associations of Washington, D.C.

It was the latest attempt by the coalition to protest Fenty’s decision last October to switch cab fare calculation from the zone system to the metered time-and-distance system. District taxis will switch from zones to meters April 6.

The District is the only major city in the U.S. to follow the zone system, which calculates fares according to the number of zones the taxi enters during the trip, according to the D.C. Taxi Commission’s Web site. In contrast, time-and-distance meters calculate fares based on the time and distance a taxi travels.

The coalition is protesting the introduction of the time-distance system because it will have adverse effects on riders in the District neighborhood areas, Price said. The time element of time-distance fares will increase the cost, especially with traffic, he said, so riders living further from central areas of the city will no longer use taxis.

Roy Spooner, general manager of Yellow Cab, said he operated with approximately 30 percent of his fleet during the strike.

“I thought (the strike) was very successful because the problem is that our message has been distorted,” Price said. “So we needed to have a strike to get out a clearer message to the riding public in the District of Columbia as well as send a message to the mayor.”

The strike was planned for last Tuesday but was rescheduled for last Thursday so residents voting in the primary would not have a difficult time getting to the polls, Price said. Instead, riders had a more difficult time getting to Valentine’s Day dinners.

Fewer riders from the neighborhoods means taxi service will shift to areas like the airports, hotels and Union Station, leaving the rest of D.C. without service, Price said.

“When you put 6,500 time-distance meters in a city the size of Washington the business shifts all downtown because people in outer areas won’t be able to use taxicabs because the price will increase exponentially,” he said.

The coalition is advocating the introduction of a zone-meter system, where fares will be calculated by zone using a global positioning system, Price said.

“We’re going to sacrifice the fact of not having a time factor in order to preserve the service in the neighborhoods – preserve the number of cabs on the street,” he said. “Right now even if people decide not to use a cab the ability to use a cab is always there.”

Legislation introduced by D.C. Councilmembers Marion Barry and Phil Mendelson Jan. 8 would establish a zone-meter system in the District. Their plan is currently being discussed in committee. Price said the coalition is in favor of Barry and Mendelson’s act.

In an interview, Mendelson said the difficulty with the zone system is that riders do not know their fare until the ride is over because zone boundaries are confusing. Using a GPS meter to track the cab’s movement, he said, would make fare calculation more transparent and less confusing.

A driver could more easily cheat a rider with a time-distance meter by taking a lengthier, more expensive route, Mendelson said. The GPS zone-meter would check that abuse.

“It’s very easy to cheat on (the time-distance meter). ‘I’m a professional driver,'” he said, impersonating a taxi driver. “‘I know the city better than you. If you say you want me to drive you from Washington Circle to Dupont Circle, I take a route through Georgetown.'”

Mendelson added, “I think it’s clear that the taxi drivers aren’t happy about this – that’s why they’re striking. I can’t recall when there was a (taxi strike last).”

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