Many D.C. Cab Riders Are Eager For Meters

D.C. cabdrivers rally at Freedom Plaza in support of a zone fare system and against a switch to time-and-distance meters.
D.C. cabdrivers rally at Freedom Plaza in support of a zone fare system and against a switch to time-and-distance meters. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

During the five years that Andrew Brix has been taking cabs for work and errands several times a week, he has run the gamut of taxi nightmares.

He has been charged different fares for the same trip. He has been asked by drivers where he was headed before he got in and, after giving an address in the same zone, watched in disbelief as they zoomed off. One bitter-cold night, he said, he was in a cab on 14th Street NW when the driver stopped for a shivering couple and agreed to drive them to Arlington for the inflated fare of $40. Brix viewed it as "extortion."

"It seems like a free-for-all system," said Brix, who wishes the District would ditch zones for meters. "They can charge what they want. They can drive any gypsy mobile they want. As long as they stick a number on the side and a light on top, they're good to go."

Within days, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is expected to announce his decision on whether to require meters in D.C. cabs, replacing a zone system that has endured criticism for decades.

Under a provision inserted in legislation last fall by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), a longtime critic of zones, Fenty has to make a choice. If he does nothing, meters must be installed in the city's cabs. To keep zones, Fenty would have to opt out of Levin's law.

Last week, several hundred cabdrivers rallied at Freedom Plaza in support of zones. But many of their biggest customers believe a change is overdue.

In an August survey of about 600 passengers for the D.C. Taxicab Commission, 81 percent of frequent riders rated the city's cabs as fair or poor. The survey also found that people who ride in cabs most often are the most ardent supporters of a switch to time-and-distance meters.

"In general, riding a cab here is an unpleasant experience," said D.J. Karni, a management consultant, who takes cabs more than 10 times a month. "The cab fare should be there on a meter. I shouldn't have to argue with the driver, and it should be a simple experience like it is in every other city."

Karni, who lives in Northwest Washington, said he becomes frustrated almost every time he takes a cab to or from Reagan National Airport. "You can go the same time, the same day of the week, and it's never the same price," he said. "It's supposed to be around $11, but it ranges from $13 to $19."

Sometimes, he tries to preempt the problem by denying the drivers a chance to ask for a fare.

"What I've found is the best approach, I give them a certain amount of money and don't even ask them the price," he said. "If you ask them the price, you're flagged as a tourist who doesn't know the zones."

From February through September, the Taxicab Commission received 348 e-mail complaints from customers, said R. Drummond-Jackson, who handles the complaints. Coming in at a rate of 30 to 60 per month, they involve overcharging, refusal to provide service, driver behavior, traffic violations, and miscellaneous problems such as lack of air conditioning, she said. There has been little increase in the number of complaints, but the commission acknowledges that some disgruntled riders probably do not bother to file a formal complaint.

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