Only hours after he arrived at the District Building in a 20-car motorcade last year to be sworn in as the newest City Council member, H.R. Crawford recalls, he was unable to hail a cab back to his Southeast Washington home and had to walk nearly 10 blocks before a passing motorist picked him up.
"Six cabs stopped but refused to transport me," says Crawford. "One guy said he was too busy, and the others said it was out of their way to go to Southeast." Crawford describes himself as having been "pretty mad."
Crawford's experience is similar to those of many seeking taxicabs to and from neighborhoods in the far eastern end of Washington, according to an exhaustive study of the District's taxicab system. The study catalogues many longstanding complaints about the system, voiced by both taxicab riders and the city's 10,000 licensed cabdrivers.
The 200-page report, commissioned by the D.C. Public Service Commission and the city's Department of Transportation at a cost of $65,000, found it was unprofitable for cabdrivers to carry riders to or from areas in much of Northeast and Southeast Washington.
The reason lies in the city's system of zones to determine taxi fares, the study said. Zones in the eastern part of the city cover greater distances than those closer to downtown, making it less profitable for drivers to do business there.
"Costs tended to increase for trips as they originated in zones farther from the downtown area," the report said. "We recommend that the fare charge structure be redesigned to reduce the magnitude of these problems."
The study stopped short of recommending a taxicab meter system. But it recommends adding three more fare zones, which would effectively make zones smaller and make the current system operate more like a metered one. Under the system proposed by the report, fares would increase for each nine-tenths of a mile traveled by a passenger.
The report found that currently a $2.45 taxi trip could be as long as 4.3 miles or as short as four-tenths of a mile. Those attempting to hail cabs in outlying zones had to wait about five times as long for a cab as passengers downtown, the report said, although it also stated that drivers had a hard time finding fares in those outlying neighborhoods.
Anthony Rachal, a Washington lawyer who represents the Taxicab Industry Group, a trade organization for D.C. cab companies, said his group supports the recommendation to make zones smaller.
"Basically it comes down to economics," Rachal said of drivers' reluctance to go to far Southeast or Northeast. "You don't get many multiple group fares and a cabdriver doesn't want to make a long trip out there and have an empty cab coming back."
Several cabdrivers interviewed last week expressed dissatisfaction with the current zone system. Yet there was no consensus on how to improve it.
"If they put in meters it would be just like New York City and only a few big companies could afford to operate cabs," said Gerald Fitzgerald, 34, a D.C. cabdriver who has been operating his own cab for five years.
But Daniel Ruffin, 42, said he would like to see a metered system. "This zone thing is the cheapest system in the whole United States," said Ruffin, who said he has been driving a cab for the District Cab Association since January. He said he prefers to make interstate jaunts--such as trips to Dulles International Airport--where he can charge passengers based on the mileage traveled.
The study analyzed reports submitted by 689 District cabdrivers covering about 4,500 trips and found that about 2,722 riders--or more than half--were picked up from zone one, which covers downtown Washington from Capitol Hill to the West End. Another 29 percent of the taxicab rides originated in zone two, which extends in a rough circle about 15 blocks outside of Florida Avenue.
The study also found that many drivers avoided far Southeast and Northeast because they believed the areas to be unsafe. In a survey of 57 drivers, a majority said they avoided going east of the Anacostia River when possible. A subzone bounded by Naylor Road, Alabama Avenue and the Anacostia River was deemed the most unsafe.
PSC director Melvin Doxie said the commission will be soliciting public comment until October on the merits and problems of the current taxicab zone system. He said the commission will then study the comments, and may ultimately modify the size of some or all of the taxicab zones.