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Just when D.C. needs every taxpayer it can get its hands on, the city wants to make it harder to earn a living here. At issue is a proposal to require meters for D.C.’s 8,000 cabs, a move that would severely hobble, if not destroy, the taxi industry as a major tool of local upward mobility.

It’s been more than 60 years since the D.C. Public Utilities Commission first legalized meters. Congress—which does much of its business in Zone 1—reacted to the commission’s move by instituting a meter ban that lasted until 1987. Since then, political pressure for meters has been growing. The D.C. Taxicab Commission appeared ready to vote on the matter Dec. 6, but at the last moment tabled a decision until next year. (At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot’s Committee on Public Service and Youth Affairs intends to hold a meters hearing on Dec. 19.)

D.C. now has more cabs per capita than any other city in America. If all of D.C.’s cabs were owned by one company, the firm would be the city’s largest private employer. The open-entry system allows anybody who can pass the hackers’ test and pass vehicle inspection to go into business as a cabbie. The industry also serves as a remarkably efficient example of what is known as para-transit, a form of moving people about that’s more public than a car, but less so than, say, a bus.

This abundance of cabs could be reversed if meters were installed: Under D.C.’s zone system, only the cabbie knows for sure how much business he is doing. When taxi meters are deployed, it’s easier for bosses—like big corporations—to track taxi revenue. If they could track D.C. taxi revenue, they could reap it, and this would make Washington’s cab industry attractive to big business for the first time. Besides, meters cost over $500 to buy and install, and require monthly maintenance.

In addition to despising the anarchy of the zone system, corporate cab companies fear the free market, preferring instead to enlist the government in restraint of trade, usually by placing a cap on the number of cabs. For example, a 1983 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that 87 percent of some 100 cities with taxi service restricted entry in some way. Chip Mellor of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal action group, notes that Denver has routinely turned down every application for a new taxicab company from 1947 on. The Chicago and L.A. cab markets are likewise closed. A taxicab license in Boston trades at $60,000 and in New York at $140,000.

If the corporate cab companies descended upon Washington, took advantage of taxi-metering, and convinced the District government to restrict entry, the impact on taxi patrons could be phenomenal. Currently, D.C. has one cab for every 75 citizens; New York City has only one for every 600.

There is almost an iron law of noncompetition in the taxi industry, dating back at least to 1636, when the owners of Thames water-taxis got King Charles I to restrict the number of horse-drawn hacks to 50 in order to cut down on the land-borne competition. The rule was invoked as recently as 1962, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley guaranteed 80 percent of all new cab permits to one of his buddies.

Metering would not only reduce the ease of hailing a D.C. cab, it would also end a remarkable tradition of individual entrepreneurship—particularly for minorities—that the city has enjoyed almost from its beginning. My wife, local historian Kathryn Schneider Smith, studied the estate records of D.C. free blacks in the early 19th century and discovered that typically the most successful trade was that of a hack driver. Among the reasons: ownership of one’s means of livelihood; a business relationship with the white community; and relief from some of the black codes—the city’s apartheid-type rules that among other things set a curfew on blacks.

Again, when blacks moved into the city in large numbers in the 1950s, it became common to find cabs providing a first or second job for new arrivals trying to gain a foothold on the economic ladder. The cab parked in front of a black-owned home then was a symbol of the taxi’s importance in giving economic substance to the promise of civil rights.

Today, the story is being repeated, only this time the beneficiaries are more often immigrants speaking in awkward accents. They have no political movement to back them, no Martin Luther King Jr., and hostility against them is practically sanctioned by society. Attitudes about cab service have become inexorably intertwined with attitudes toward newly arrived minorities, for cabdrivers tend to belong to the ethnic groups that most recently came to town.

Although anti-immigrant prejudice is seldom explicit, its offspring crops up constantly in discussion of cab service—concern over cheating or “cleanliness” or lack of knowledge of the city. Since there is no evidence that D.C. cabs are any dirtier than those elsewhere, the question of cleanliness seems to suggest that something else is being discussed here. One senses when reading complaints about cabbies in the Washington Post that the citizenry believes that if cabs were driven by a better class of employees—and under the control of proper members of the Board of Trade and Federal City Council—everything would be neater.

Likewise, there is an assumption that meters would slay fare cheating. If there is one universal in the cab industry, it is that cabdrivers cheat. This indicates that cabbies are extraordinarily knowledgeable natives who do a lot of business with extraordinarily ignorant visitors. But a study by U.S. News & World Report this year found that D.C. cabbies cheat no more often than cabbies in other major cities. While the U.S. News study found overcharges of about $5 on a D.C. airport run, it also reported that in New York one should ask a taxi dispatcher for the best route to a destination: “A driver who takes the Belt Parkway from JFK to midtown, for example, can add $20 to a $25 to $30 fare,” U.S. News reported. The reporters were overcharged $5 for a similar run in Chicago, cheated by limo drivers in San Francisco, reported occasional $20 overcharges in Boston, and so forth. Even the D.C. cab commission’s own study found that passengers were overcharged only 17 percent of the time, and undercharged 10 percent of the time. This in a city where you must be cheated by 50 percent to equal the cab rates in many other places.

Metering D.C. cabs would continue the three-decade-long tradition of local leaders pursuing the worst possible public-transit policies. It began with the destruction of one of the country’s finest light-rail systems in the ’60s, which was followed shortly by a disastrous web of freeways mercifully truncated by citizen opposition. The area then conned the federal government into building a subway system by promising twice as many riders as was eventually the case. Whatever advantage D.C. might have gained from the subway was soon lost as Metro dispersed development once centered downtown and provided easier city access for non-taxpaying suburban day-trippers. Now a city in which more than a third of its citizens are without a car is threatened with curtailment of its bus system because it can’t afford to fund its share of the suburb-oriented subway. Most recently, the mayor proposed a bizarre plan under which all tour buses were to be directed to that well-known attraction—New York Avenue NE—and inspected for $95 by a city that supervises its own affairs only by shorting the till a few hundred-million dollars and having various departments turned over to the courts.

Gutting the taxi industry would fit this pattern, but it would also buck an international trend toward taxi deregulation in order to improve service and reduce costs. One of the most dramatic examples occurred this summer in Indianapolis, Ind., when the city eliminated the cap on taxi licenses, set only a maximum—but no minimum—fare, and invited businesses to start jitney services at whatever rates they wished.

In four months, the number of Indianapolis cab companies doubled, fares dropped 7 percent, and cabdrivers even started wearing ties. Further, there was not a single taxi-related complaint. Says mayoral special assistant Tom Rose, who spearheaded the plan, it’s been a “really dramatic, dramatic improvement.”

Rose said that switching to a zone system was not considered, because the changes being proposed already seemed to be as radical as local politics would allow.

Reviving jitney service—lobbied out of existence across America early this century by bus companies—marks a radical change. A jitney is a cross between a taxi and a bus—basically an oversize taxi running along a set route. In Indianapolis, the owners rather than the city set the routes, although Rose says the government is talking to some of the companies about providing service to help inner-city residents get to jobs in outlying areas. In D.C., jitney service could quickly compensate for Metro cutbacks or provide improved service, say, from east of the Anacostia to other parts of the city.

I suggest two easily made improvements to the D.C. taxi system: Drivers would benefit if Zone 1 were split in two, which would mean an immediate leap in income for cabbies, much of it from government workers, journalists, and tourists. For riders, I propose a flat airport-to-downtown fare (used in a number of cities) that would eliminate many of the cheating complaints.

But in the politics of D.C., such common-sense solutions carry little weight. Like a kid with a watch, the temptation for our leaders is just too great. Even if it works, you got to take it apart.