DC taxis

Matt’s concerned that Mayor Fenty’s reduction of proposed metered fares for D.C. taxis will make it harder to hail a cab. I’m not so worried. Have a look at the comments in this DCist thread. It’s full of stories of cabbies refusing to take fares because of the requested destination or because a surcharge wouldn’t apply to the trip.

Now, perhaps these cabs are refusing to provide service (illegally, I might add) because they’re already perched on the brink of financial ruin, and taking anything less than maximally lucrative fares would send them tumbling into bankruptcy. But I have my doubts. By all accounts the taxi commission in this city has been unusually powerful for an unusually long time. And although I don’t know how hard D.C. cabbies work relative to their peers in other cities, I can say with certainty that cabs in Philadelphia are cheaper, easier to hail, more convenient (you can pay with credit cards!) and generally better maintained. I could be mistaken, but it certainly seems like D.C. cabs have been operating as a cartel, isolated from true competitive pressure and, in general, enjoying something of a sweetheart deal.

I admit, I’m a little hesitant to make this criticism. Although I strongly suspect that driving a taxi in D.C. is a better job than driving one elsewhere, I’m absolutely positive that being a software developer in D.C. is a better job than either. But although I’m sorry to advocate making cab operators’ lives harder, I also have a pretty strong sense of resentment over how many times I’ve emerged from a Washington taxi feeling ripped off — I’d put it at about 50% of my trips, whether from dubious surcharges, phantom zones springing to life or the driver’s insistence that he only ever carries $2 in change.

The obvious caveat to all of this is Washington’s size. It’s a small city — maybe expecting an efficient taxi system in such a small space is unrealistic. But although the city is small, the metropolitan area is large. If D.C. cabbies really can’t make a living charging New York prices, the answer is simple: start allowing Virginia and Maryland taxis into the District and, if possible, vice versa.

At that point you might have an efficiently operating market for taxi service — and at that point I think it’d be safe to start worrying about the system reacting to manipulation in straightforward economic ways. But at the moment I seriously doubt that the factors constraining the supply of taxis in this town have anything to do with price.

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