D.C.’s taxis: Third-world rides in a world-class city just got pricier

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 23, 2012

We’ve got cheeky, red bikes zipping across the region. One of cleanest Metro systems around. Super-cute Smart Cars scattered across town that you can rent by the minute with the swipe of a card. And buses that crisscross the city.

Short of a monorail or molecular transporters, the D.C. area is looking pretty modern on the public transportation front, pedicabs aside.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

That’s why it’s just kind of fun sometimes to take a cab, when I’m yearning for a trip to Cairo or wanting to relive the memories of a harrowing afternoon in rural China.

D.C. taxis are there to give you that developing world experience.

Uncertain pay rates, rude drivers dodging through traffic with lots of dubious twists and turns, the drone of an incessant phone conversation that you’re not part of, the smells of a pungent lunch filling the hot cab.

The really great part? This exotic, D.C. adventure will cost even more this week.

The rag-tag band of occasionally wretched cars that make up the taxi fleet in the nation’s capital hiked their rates again on Saturday.

Now granted, D.C. taxis were probably too cheap at one time. Compare us with 39 other cities on cab fares and you’ll see we used to be the cheapest. Now we are somewhere in the middle, less expensive than Honolulu but significantly pricier than Cincinnati.

It basically means that most fares will increase by a couple bucks, setting our prices firmly at average.

Not a huge deal for the expense account crowd. Painful, though not crippling, for working folks who have to occasionally take a cab because of odd working hours or an emergency dash home. And it’s a small but notable burden for people who have no car, are not close to public transportation and sometimes need a taxi for shopping trips.

The cost isn’t the biggest problem here. The issue for most folks is that our taxis basically bite.

Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, put it well. She said that D.C. “is a world-class city with a third-class taxi system.”

When the city held hearings on the proposed rate hike, folks were pretty vocal about the dismal state of cabs. The Chamber of Commerce, and hotel and restaurant folks all begged for cabs in D.C. to be modernized and better regulated.

The rate hike will soon be followed by a new age limit on cabs. Five years and then the cabs are history.

That’s just about the turnover rate for some political spouses here. And a good idea. I’ve been in taxis with bad brakes, smoking engines, ripped seats and broken windows. They often claim the A/C is broken, but I think they just don’t want to run it.

And the problem is you can’t really shop for a good cab and a good driver. It’s a crapshoot who pulls over for you, so good drivers with well-kept cabs aren’t rewarded with business.

Some cabbies objected, arguing that putting expiration dates on their rides is like “genocide.”

“This is a lethal injection to wipe us [D.C. taxicab drivers] out,” Mechal Chame said to raucous applause from his peers in a council hearing this year.

Some folks think that wouldn’t be the worst idea.

But nah, D.C. Taxicab Commission Chair Ron Linton said he just wants to make the cabs better. “But give me some some time!” he told me. Credit card machines, GPS, all of that is coming, just not overnight, he said.

Check out another possible addition to taxis: a panic button. Not the kind to save the drivers being held up. No, that’ so 1990. Instead, there’s a twist now. The panic button is for passengers who get assaulted by their drivers.

“In the past three months, we’ve seen incidents of simple assaults on passengers, all incidents papered by MPD,” Linton said.“Pulling them out of their cabs. One woman was pulled out by her ankles. Some were struck.”

Six of the seven victims assaulted by drivers this year have been women.

The taxi commission says don’t worry, though. They hope to install panic buttons in all D.C. cabs by December.

Now how about a reset button?

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad.

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