IN THE MORNINGS, the Pigeon Man is often sitting behind the wheel of his cab waiting at a certain hotel for prospective passengers to come out. He is a small man, jolly, hard-working and honest and a very nice guy. He has six children and a dog and pigeons he races on the weekends and he works at two jobs. He has a job with the city and he has his job with his cab and between the two jobs he makes a nice buck.It's time he earned it.
Sometimes I get into his cab to chat. This has been going on for some time now. We talk about politics and sometimes about pigeons and sometimes about the taxi business in Washington. He knows by now that I think he ought to be out of it.
Pigeon Man is a part-timer. The cab business is not his basic business. He works it when he can, which is pretty often, actually, and he uses it to put extra money in his pocket. All he has to do is get his hack license, have his cab and get on the streets. The rest is easy.
The Pigeon Man, like most Washington cab drivers, abhors the thought of meters. If you just mention them and the reason is not only that it would cost him money to buy and install a meter, it is that without meters no big company can come in and organize cab fleets. Without meters, there is no way for anyone to really know what a Washington cabdriver earns. No one really knows -- not the Public Service Commission, not some prospective cab company that would split the take with the driver and not, incidentally, the IRS.
The Pigeon Man comes to mind now because the public service commission and the taxicab industry have agreed on yet another fare increase. This will be the third this year. The first was a 9 percent increase and then a 10-cent surcharge and now this one -- good for 10 or 12 percent -- and about to be implemented soon. The Pigeon Man will be pleased. The passengers will not.
The fact of the matter is that we are all tourists when it comes to taking cabs in Washington.You never know what the fare is supposed to be, never know what is a group ride and shared ride and when the surcharge is supposed to be in effect for the rush hour. I think I have to pay 50 cents extra for calling a cab, but I don't know if this applies if he comes late, makes another stop and forces me to miss my plane at the airport. All I know is that I have never yet paid the same fare twice for the airport trip -- this despite the fact that my house and the airport are where they have always been.
No matter. The city clings to a system that is a nightmare. On the front seat of every cab is posted something called Taxicab Zone Map. I have been looking at one for days. It is a wonderful document. On the back, it has 26 columns of numbers going down and 26 going across and all you have to do, if you want to know what your fare should be, is read this in a moving cab, maybe at night, maybe with the driver breathing hostility on you so that your glasses fog. I, for one, have been staring at that map for years and have never made sense of it although a careful reading of it tells me that a driver can charge 50 cents extra for "personal service" -- something that has not been seen since at least 1946.
The point, of course, is that a meter would do away with that awful chart. A meter would compensate the driver for time and distance. A meter can be set for a night rate, a day rate, a rush-hour rate, a group rate -- an any-kind-of-rate-you-want rate. A meter would mean that the cabdriver who told me it would cost $2.50 to send my son home from the dentist would know that he was wrong and a meter would mean that some of the city's cabdrivers will no longer have two rates -- one for tourists, one for residents.
The meter will also mean that drivers like Pigeon Man will have to punch some sort of clock. He's either going to have to buy and install a meter or he's going to have to go to work for someone who will. He will have to account for his time, his mileage and at the end of the day some boss is going to go through his pockets and take his cut.
There are no good choices here, but the system as it exists is structured to the benefit of the drivers and not the passengers. You feel you have no rights. At the moment, you can't smoke, can't get big bills changed, can't insist on a direct route, can't get a cab if you're alone, can't get one if your're Anacostia-bound, don't dare ask for the radio to be turned down, don't know if you can be taken out of your way so another passenger can be dropped off and don't know, because there is no meter, what the fare is when you finally arrive at your destination. Meters may not be the solution, but they're a start. Sorry Pigeon Man. You have to understand.
The system now is for the birds.