The Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia has decided to rush to the rescue of the embattled citizenry. The citizenry, it should be noted, was not aware of the fact that it was in the midst of a major crisis that called for immediate action by the PSC. But two of the three commissioners knew we were in trouble and they have moved to save us from the city's wicked cab drivers.
Ever since 1973, the cab drivers have made life in the big city miserable. Before then, we all rode in cabs alone, secure in the knowledge that the drivers were devoting full time and attention, not to mention large amounts of gasoline, to getting us to our destinations on time and in one piece. We never had to worry that their incomes might come ahead of our very important business.
Then the Public Service Commission, at the peak of the gasoline shortage, passed a revolutionary regulation allowing cab drivers to pick up more than one passenger and to take them to different destinations, if the additional destinations weren't more than five blocks out of the first passenger's way. The idea was to save gas and increase the cabbies' income to help defray their increased gasoline costs.
A terrible thing began to happen: I would be on my way to The Washington Post from a hearing on the Hill, for example, and the cab driver would stop at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and ask some person standing there where he or she was going. That took at least a minute out of my precious time. Sometimes the person would be going my way and he or she would get into the cab. I began meeting more of my fellow citizens. I met lawyers and accountants and lobbyists and nurses and secretaries and tourists. Sometimes the new passenger's destination was a few blocks out of my way, but the cabbie would deliver him or her first. That happened three or four times, as I recall, costing me between 30 and 40 minutes out of my life. Altogether. Since 1973.
But apparently I've been lucky. According to a Public Service Commission staff member, the commission has been getting telephone calls from citizens complaining about drivers abusing the cab-sharing privilege.
The commission reacted swiftly and on Wednesday voted to allow passengers already in the cab to order the driver not to pick up any one else. Commission chairman Ruth Hankins-Nesbitt and Commissioner Patricia Clement voted for the change, and Commissioner Wesley H. Long voted against it. Clement contributed to the discussion of the issue by suggesting that the cab drivers' claim that they would lose revenue was "mere supposition."
What provoked this assault on the District's cab drivers remains quite mysterious. Fred Denby, executive director of the Professional Cab Drivers Association, says the commission has no evidence to justify the rule change.
If the commission has, indeed, received telephone complaints about cab drivers taking too many passengers or taking them too far out of their way, then it ought to hold public hearings and elicit testimony from the injured citizens in order to determine what is going on and who is doing it. While it technically might not be required to do so since what is involved here is merely a rule change, it certainly should have done so if it expected the rule-change to be viewed as anything but caprice.
Cab sharing was one of the ways people in this town got together to manage the gasoline crisis. We took a little extra time getting someplace sometimes, but we helped conserve gas and we helped the cab drivers, who today earn the princely sum of $1.70 for most downtown trips, earn more money. Cab sharing has evolved into a practical, generally pleasant tradition that has enriched not only the cab drivers, but their passengers. It has enabled us to contribute in a small way toward preserving rather than squandering natural resources.
While there may have been abuses, the appropriate first step would have been to fine or suspend the licenses of the violators. There was no public outcry--and certainly the PSC did not develop any kind of public record--to suggest that an arbitrary rule change affecting the whole industry was in order.
Quite the contrary: the record on cab sharing and what it has contributed to the fabric of the city suggests that the commission could have done the public a much greater service by leaving well enough alone.