Alex Massie

Department of Local Interest

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Lots of talk about taxis in Washington DC and, more particularly the Mayor's announcement that DC will switch to a meter system, abandoning the current fare tariff which is based upon a zone system that seems, frankly, arbitrary* in the extreme and unlike any other system I've encountered in any developed city anywhere in the world.

The prevailing view is that switching to meters is good news - especially for tourists who may be less likely to be ripped off by cabbies claiming they've crossed three zones rather than two etc etc. Too bad for tourists if you ask me; voters get ripped off in Washington all the time and, as Capra and any number of film-makers have demonstrated, the city's no place for callow idealists. Welcome to DC: Where We're Always Ready to Pay to Play. As Truman said, If you want a friend in this town, get a dog.

Anyway, the cab drivers are said - though reliable evidence for this is hard to come by - to be very much opposed to the new system. One can see why: it pours light onto mystery. But they also seem to fear that a meter system will encourage large taxi fleets to enter the city market to the detriment of the little guy. (DC has an unusually large number of owner-operators). Consequently they're supposed to be striking today. (How quaint! A strike!)

Now it's true that DC cab drivers are especially good at their job but there is this to be said for the zone system: it at least provides no incentive for them to deliberately go the wrong way to jack up the price of a fare. Then again, given how frequently they go the wrong way in a city largely built on a grid system they don't need any incentive to waste your - and their - time...

One thing to be said for owner-operators however is that the low cost of entry into the DC taxi market at least has the virtue of ensuring that there's no shortage of cabs. Anyone who has ever spent an hour or two waiting for a car in Dublin will attest to the problems that arise when taxi medallions cost the earth and the powerful cab lobby prevents the issuance of new licenses. The last thing DC needs is another powerful special interest...

*My beefs: why do you get charged two fares if you drop a friend off at their house on your way home. Also, why are fares automatically doubled if there's an inch of snow on the road ? Plus: the $1 rush-hour surcharge makes no sense at all since it can only encourage citizens to take their own cars at a time when you want as few private cars on the road as possible.

Also: why is the DC bus system so useless? Or, rather, why do the buses insist upon stopping every 50 yards? Couldn't you speed things up by stripping out 25% of the bus stops in the city. Or you could have some "express" buses. And why no dedicated bus lanes? It's ridiculous that you can park your car on major thoroughfares such as Connecticut Avenue or 16th St during rush hour.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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