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Marc Fisher

Driving in Circles On the Route To Taxi Reform

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page B01

W hat the world needs now is love, sweet love, a chicken in every pot and taxis that show up when you need them.

Some sort of cosmic cabby convergence must be happening because right now, Montgomery County and the District are proposing to overhaul their taxi industries. In both places, the aim is to make service more reliable. But as you'd expect from these, um, distinctive governments, the county and the city are going about this in utterly opposite fashions.

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You might think there'd be consensus about how to achieve optimal taxi service. You might think that more taxis would mean better service or that letting customers know in advance how much a ride will cost would mean happier riders.

That would be way too simple.

In Montgomery, the county sets a strict limit on the number of cabs. Until a church activist group called Action in Montgomery (AIM) started pushing for reform, the county hadn't added to the taxi supply in a decade. One company, Barwood, dominates, controlling 434 of the 580 cabs.

The result is that customers wait forever to get a cab. Drivers are unhappy, too, because they pay Barwood $100 a day to lease their cabs and spend all day trying to make that back. The big company, however, does quite well, thanks. And that company turns out to be most generous in its support of local politicians.

So the county had little incentive to fix the problem, until AIM listened to its congregations and found that struggling families simply could not rely on taxis to get them to doctors, supermarkets and jobs.

AIM pressured County Executive Doug Duncan, who proposed a reform package, nearly doubling the number of licenses and adding new standards, including an average 20-minute response time to radio calls. The taxi industry fought the reforms, and by the time they passed the County Council last month, the number of new licenses had been cut to 70 in the next year and a similar number every two years thereafter. The council -- along with Barwood and its drivers -- worried about "flooding the market."

"Anytime one company dominates the market, it has in its hip pocket the local council members and politicians who regulate the industry," says Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, a Washington legal group whose suits have pushed several cities to open up to taxi competition.

In the District, where new cabbies flow freely into the market, Mayor Anthony Williams wants to impose sharp limits on the supply of cabs and push aside the city's tradition of independent drivers, moving toward the dominant-player model that has failed in Montgomery. Williams also wants to strip the District of its unique and effective zone system of fares, switching to the meters used everywhere else. Appalled District cabbies held a one-day strike last month to protest the mayor's moves.

Girma Mengistu, a Montgomery cabby who created Cabdrivers Allied for Better Service, a hacks' advocacy group, believes the county has plenty of cabs. Adding cabs, he says, will dilute each driver's income.

Across the border, D.C. cabby William Wright, who led last month's strike, believes that the city and drivers are better off with more cabs because "we work on volume. The more cabs there are, the more people will rely on taxis. That's more business for us."

What gives? How can cabbies in the county want fewer cabs while drivers in the city defend their open system?

D.C. Taxicab Commission member Sandra Seegars scoffs at the notion that fewer cabs will result in better service in black neighborhoods where taxis are hard to find. "It's nothing to do with color," says Seegars, who is black. "They're going downtown, where the fares are, no matter how many cabs there are. They want short runs. I saw a white lady put out of the cab by a driver because she said she was going [across town] to Friendship Heights. All of a sudden, he had to go pick up his wife. I said to myself, 'Gee, so everything is not just because you're black.' "

The District is proof that the market works -- cab service is plentiful and reasonable. Yet Montgomery fears that solution, and the city wants to run from its own success. There is a role for tighter regulation; better inspections would provide safer cabs. And the city desperately needs readable zone maps.

But good service requires enough taxis. The rest is all just protecting the big boys.

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