A couple of years ago, as I cruised the streets of Washington in my cab, I noticed a young black man frantically attempting to flag a cab. Although I had a passenger, I pulled to the curb and motioned for the young man to get in. Before he had a chance to say anything, I told him that my other passenger was going only a few more blocks and that I would take him wherever he wanted after that.
The man was astonished: "You mean you will take me to Southeast?"
"Sure, why not," I replied.
Then he explained that I was the first cab driver in Washington who had ever let him into a cab without first demanding to know where he was going. He told of the many times at Union Station when he had been shuttled from cab to cab and ended up walking home in frustration.
I had become a hero, at least to this young man. But I was only out to make an extra buck by doing my job -- a job that I am required by law to do. But he remembered that first encounter, and, from time to time, late at night, when he does not want to put up with a hassle, he will call and request me.
This story reflects the picture of the taxicab industry in the nation's capital. This past year, as Washington's 7,000 cab drivers renewed their licenses (ID or "face" cards, as they are called), they were required to pay an additional $18 fo a full-scale study of the taxicab code in the District of Columbia that may result in revisions by the Public Service Commission.
Most cab drivers and most of the riding public agree that changes are needed. But talk to 10 cab drivers and you will get 10 different solutions. Some want meters, but an equal number fear that an IRS agent will be waiting to read that meter at the end of each day. Some cab drivers would like to see Zone 1 (downtown Washington, including the Capitol) cut into two zones. Others would be happy if the Capitol were moved into Zone 2. Whatever changes the commission agrees on, many cab drivers and riders will still feel that the problem has been picked at but not solved.
The law now covers almost anything that a taxicab driver may or may not do. Not only are the normal fares controlled by the city, but the law tells a cab driver what he may charge for carrying a bag of groceries; it even tells us what a bag of groceries is. It outlines how big a box a dog must be put into if it is going by taxicab. It tells the driver how many feet away from the taxicab he must step before he can charge a customer for personal service.
Twelve full-time police officers are assigned as hack inspectors, whose job it is to see that the taxicab code is enforced. As a backup, the entire metropolitan police force has authority to ticket a driver for violation of any part of the taxicab code.
But the District's effort to regulate the taxicab industry has been a dismal failure. Every day cab drivers pass up passengers whom they are bound by law to pick up. Drop by any cafe or tavern where cabbies hang out and you will hear them exchange wild tales about their daily experiences. Some of them will even boast about ripping off an unsuspecting passenger.
Two years ago, the airline industry was deregulated. As a result, the riding public is able to pick up bargain airline tickets. Now the trucking industry is about to be dereulated, interstate bus service may follow soon, and President Reagan has acted to decontrol the oil industry. Now is the time for the Public Service Commission to give serious thought to the deregulation of the taxicab industry in Washington.
In San Diego and Seattle, where the taxicab industry has been deregulated, taxicab owners have only to file letters with the city, stating their fare structures. Once a letter has been filed, the cab company or independent driver is required to charge the declared fees.
Today, the District has over 5,000 taxicabs, more than 30 different cab companies and associations and a large percentage of independent taxicabs. Deregulation would not leave the riding public at the mercy of three or four taxicab barons who could exploit the market. It would permit the various taxicab operators to continue with the zone system, adopt meters or experiment with the new grid fare structure, developed by Ronald F. Kirby of the Urban Institute.
The chief objection to deregulation would no doubt come from riders who fear that they would never know what price they would have to pay. Local people, however, could easily establish price differences through phone calls or by asking drivers before entering the cabs. Local law could require the taxicab driver to plainly post his rates and fare strcuture on the outside passenger door, as well as in plain view inside the taxicab.
Signs could be posted in the air, bus and train terminals and hotel lobbies, informing people that they should consult with two or more cab companies to determine the most acceptable fare rate. To consult with the hotel doorman about the most expensive cab ride should be no more demanding on the traveling public than to consult with him about a good place to eat an inexpensive breakfast.
Some of the larger taxicab operations might offer the visiting businessman unlimited taxicab service at a set price per day. This would permit these companies to compete with the rent-a-car business. Another advantage of deregulation would be that cab companies could set different rates for share-riding and exclusive service. Currently, if you have only 15 minutes to get to the train station, you flag a cab and if the driver chooses to stop along the way to pick up additional passengers you may not object as long as the driver does not take you more than five blocks out of your way. Those five blocks, plus the time spent stopping to load and unload the additional passengers, may cause you to miss your train. For direct and exclusive service to the train station, you might now be willing to give the cab driver a "good tip," but the cab driver should not have to be dependent on the good nature of the passenger for his livelihood. Direct and exclusive taxi service should be available to the public, but the cab driver should have the right to charge a premium.
The Public Services Commission has an opportunity to let free market forces work to provide better and more efficient taxicab service to the citizens of Washington, something it has obviously failed to do under years of regulation.