Today is not-a-column day, and this week I wrote about the latest talk of reforming the city taxi industry.
Last week’s confirmation hearing for Ron M. Linton, the newly designated chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, renewed a lot of old gripes — from cab drivers and company owners that fares are too low and regulations too onerous; from the hotel industry that cabs provide a dubious level of service and convenience for its guests.
Linton, in his testimony and a subsequent interview, said that there is widespread recognition that “intuitively” current taxi fares are too low. But he is also saying that any fare hike will have to be accompanied by service improvements — including, perhaps, a new fund that would pay for additional inspectors and cab upgrades out of a proposed surcharge, which might be 50 cents or more.
The idea that taxi fares are too low is not a universal sentiment. For one, there’s the free-market argument, presented recently at Reason.com, that hold that if fares were in fact too low, then why is there a surfeit of people who want to enter the taxi industry? Jim Epstein writes:
Since 2010, the D.C. Taxi Commission hasn’t been issuing licenses to new cabbies. There’s no official waiting list, but a representative from the commission told me she receives calls “all day, every day” from potential applicants. In other words, want-to-be cab drivers are clamoring to get into the industry at the going rate.
But there’s another voice that typically doesn’t get heard in these debates — belonging to the taxi riders, who have not had any sort of institutional advocate lobbying on their behalf.
Traditionally, the hotel industry has been the primary voice arguing for service improvements, for the simple fact that they hear their guests’ complaints day in and day out. The concerns of tourists and business travelers mirror in large part those of resident cab riders — dirty cabs, rude drivers — but residents who don’t have cars and rely on cabs are also more sensitive to fare hikes.
Enter the D.C. Residents for Reasonable Taxi Fares, the brainchild of Jack Jacobson, a Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commissioner, and about a half-dozen friends. “We are all D.C. residents who take cabs three to eight times a week,” Jacobson said, noting only one of his core group owns a car. “We depend on public transportation and reliable, safe taxi service.”
Jacobson & Co. were active in 2007, when debate was underway over how best to move cabs from the zone system to time-and-distance meters, helping make the case that a proposed “flag drop,” or base rate, of $4 was too high. (It was later lowered to $3.)
Now, talk of a new surcharge has Jacobson gearing up for another fight. “Maybe another surcharge isn’t the way to go,” he said Wednesday. “Maybe we need to look at the taxi system from a more holistic level and figure out what works for both riders and drivers.”
The group has a Facebook page and is preparing to circulate petitions against the surcharge should it come to that. But Jacobson said the group is looking to advocate for service improvements, too — in particular, a mandatory cashless payment system. He’s skeptical that a surcharge is necessary to provide credit-card readers in cabs, which are common in other cities. “Other world-class cities provide these same services without gouging customers,” he said.
Jacobson said his latest campaign is rather ad hoc, organized mostly to speak out about the possible surcharge. But what might be needed is a more permanent institutional voice speaking out for taxi riders, whether inside the government (like Metro’s Rider Advisory Council) or outside (like New York’s Straphangers Campaign). Having watched my share of Taxicab Commission meetings and D.C. Council hearings, the hoteliers do their best to advocate for riders, but that perspective often gets lost when pitted against legions of cab drivers and company owners.