WE SEEM TO RECALL that in November of last year, District officials announced that meters would be installed in about two dozen D.C. cabs for data analysis that was to begin in January and continue for at least eight months. That eight-month mark is just a few weeks away, so we thought we'd check in to see how the study is progressing.
It has not even begun.
We could feign surprise. But no one should be really shocked to find yet another promising plan languishing in the same file drawer where all criticism of the zone system goes to die. Frankly, it's hard to muster outrage over this anymore. It's been nearly 75 years since the old Public Utilities Commission outlined a dozen fundamental flaws of the zone system -- all still applicable today -- and ordered the installation of meters in Washington's taxis, only to be overruled by Congress a few years later. We long ago lost track of all the studies -- both performed and promised. The number of times officials have said they "expect" to have meters "next year" are beyond counting.
The arguments for ditching these archaic zones are well known. But out of nostalgia, let's go over some of the old favorites.
* Prices are inconsistent. Frequent taxi riders are rarely surprised when charged varying amounts for identical trips. Even for many longtime residents, orienting oneself to the zone map can be a daunting task. For tourists, the impossibility of figuring out their location and destination in relation to the zones makes them vulnerable to being overcharged.
* The zones are arbitrary. A cab ride to the north side of U Street NW could easily cost $2.10 more than if the ride ended 50 feet south. With apologies to those few who know the system well enough to get dropped off just before the zone divide, we would prefer a price that is always commensurate with the length of the ride.
* An attempt to mark the zone boundaries on a good street map reveals an unnerving shortcoming: Many of the lines simply do not connect. These gaps in the boundaries leave far too much to the driver's interpretation.
* For the ill-intentioned few, the potential for fraud is tantalizing. With no definitive record of ride lengths and fares charged, drivers can underreport their earnings for taxes. They can also charge for more zones than were traversed, with many passengers none the wiser. (Yes, a driver could take a circuitous route to run up a meter, but that would require a waste of time -- time better used to pick up other fares.)
* The zone fare structure encourages drivers to cluster downtown. Drivers know that a few short trips are more profitable than a longer one, so when residents in outlying zones call a cab company for service, often no cab will bother to show up. Granted, meters would probably raise fares for those traveling to and from the farthest reaches of the city. But quick downtown trips would be less lucrative, finally creating an incentive to answer more distant calls.
The zone system's day has come . . . and gone. It's time for the District to act.