Throwing Up Barriers to Change: Sometimes You Form a Fortress, Sometimes a Prison

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, August 2, 2007

In this confusing life, resistance to change can mean standing up for what's good and right or clinging to something sketchy just because it's familiar. Today, an example of each:

Resisting change is heroic work when it's a fight like the District's decades-long battle against its congressional masters, who yearn to scrap the city's effective zone system of calculating taxi fares.

The latest interloper, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, while lamely protesting that "I'm an old home-rule guy," told The Washington Post that the District "can't continue to avoid making a decision."

But of course the city has made that decision over and over again. It has just decided not to go Levin's way, and to the senator, that apparently means not making a decision.

In 2002, the D.C. Taxicab Commission voted 4 to 2 against installing meters in cabs, largely because switching to meters would make longer trips more expensive while short downtown hops would be cheaper -- thereby subsidizing more affluent users of the District's 7,000 cabs.

When the city didn't fall into line, Levin, who drove a cab while in law school, got busy. In the fall, he stuffed an edict into the D.C. budget, requiring Washington to switch to meters unless the mayor specifically opts to stand tall for zones.

There are about 200,000 reasons to keep the zone system: namely, all D.C. residents who don't own cars and use cabs not to flit from one fab fundraiser to another lobbyist bash but rather to get to a doctor's office or buy groceries. For those people, the zone system is what makes cabs affordable, creating a flat rate for trips within neighborhoods, even if the doctor is across the river and on the wrong side of a traffic jam.

The zone system protects Washington's unique status as the smallest city in the country where you can hail a cab on the street. The ability of meters to record where cabbies go would attract big companies that would seek to limit the number of taxis, push out individual operators and raise prices.

A study just released by the Taxicab Commission compared fares computed by zone and by meter and found what any rider already knew: Meters would jack up fares on long trips and cut the cost of a short hop.

"They keep studying and studying, and it always boils down to the same thing," says Taxicab Commissioner and former D.C. Council member Sandy Allen. "With zones, people in Congress might have to pay a few dollars more to get from Union Station to their house on the Hill. But the mother who has to drop the kids off at day care so she can get to work would have to pay a lot more with meters. I wish Congress would just leave us alone."

There is, as Levin argues, a problem with tourists not understanding the zones. But the city has moved to fix that, finally putting into cabs an easily read zone map -- one in which north is, for the first time, up. Need more clarity? The city could install zone meters so riders could get accurate receipts. Forcing the city to scrap a system that has served riders well for more than 70 years is the ultimate in arrogance.

In this case, the more things stay the same, the better off we'll all be -- except, perhaps, for a few swells up on the Hill.

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