The Taxi as a Ticket to the American Dream

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, March 23, 2008

F or now, in the Silver Spring development of Dumont Oaks, there are more D.C. cabs -- dozens of them -- parked along the streets than there are "For Sale" signs on houses going through foreclosure.

Hiwot Haileselassie wants to keep it that way. She and her husband work as architects in Rockville, but they credit their professional careers and success in this country to Washington's unique cab system. Only by driving a D.C. cab could her husband make the money and carve out the time that allowed both of them to go to school and climb the ladder in a new land, says the Ethiopian immigrant.

Now, with several dozen Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrant taxi drivers living alongside her in this Montgomery County townhouse community, Haileselassie feels obliged to help the drivers save their path to success.

"America is supposed to be about upward mobility," she says. "We were able to move up because of the taxicab. But now the city wants to take this away. Why would they do this?"

For decades, Washington's taxi system has served as an economic elevator for natives and immigrants alike. Nearly 7,500 independent proprietors roam the streets, each driver his own small business. Six weeks before the District scraps its 77-year-old zone fare system, taxi owners are increasingly sure that their incomes will drop dramatically under the meter fare schedule that Mayor Adrian Fenty imposed after a congressional fiat.

Nobody gets rich driving a cab; the competition for passengers on D.C. streets is fierce, in part because Washington is the only major city in the country that doesn't place strict limits on the number of cabs on the street.

People kept applying for hack licenses because, if you worked long hours, you could make a living. Raising a family was still a struggle under the zone system, but if you were out on the street six days a week, you could manage to make the down payment on the $250,000 houses that many bought in Dumont Oaks.

Come May, the drivers say, that will change. They have run the numbers on the fare estimator, and they have reams of paper spelling out just how far their incomes will fall under the new system. A two-zone, 1.2-mile fare in the center of the city that now costs a rider $8.80 will drop to $5 with the meters cabbies have been ordered to install.

Factor in the removal of rush-hour surcharges under the new system, and "a taxi is becoming cheaper than a bus," says Anghesom Bisrat, an Eritrean immigrant who has driven a cab for eight of his 13 years in the United States. The difference in fares may be only a couple of dollars to most passengers, but the cabbies say the cheaper fares will eliminate the bulk of their profit margin.

"My income would go down 50 percent," says Negussie Tedla, who has lived in this country for 27 years and has raised two honor roll students. "How is it fair that with gas prices going up so high and the cost of living rising, all other transportation fares go up, but taxi fares go down? We work so hard, and we don't want any special treatment. We just want to be allowed to make our living. Who benefits if we lose our house and end up in the welfare line?"

The church many of the Ethiopian drivers attend has announced a month of prayer and fasting to save the members' homes by halting the city's new fare policy. After many years of rivalry, Ethiopian and native-born black cabbies, the two largest populations among the city's drivers, have joined forces to fight the new fare system, filing suit in Superior Court and staging occasional one-day strikes to gain public attention to their cause.

But with the new rules a few weeks from being enforced, there is little political or popular support for the cabbies. Haileselassie and a group of drivers assembled in her living room say they would embrace a compromise -- zone meters that would use GPS technology to measure trips and guarantee a fair price. The idea is to retain the old fare system while providing passengers with receipts and holding rogue drivers accountable.

Fenty considered and rejected that proposal, choosing to align the District with the fare system used in almost every other city.

The drivers tell story after story of the good deeds their colleagues do -- returning lost wallets, reuniting government agents with secret documents left on a back seat.

In Dumont Oaks, when the Ethiopian families get together, the talk is of their children's accomplishments; their joke is that when the local school holds its student awards night, the parents in the room seem like a convention of taxi drivers.

These days, their gatherings have become occasions to trade not proud boasts but wrenching worries.

"The drivers are my family," Haileselassie says. "When your family's being hurt, you don't stand by and watch."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company