Photo by minwoo on Flickr.

DC taxi fares will soon rise, but many surcharges which annoy riders will go away. A pending bill would also bring more modern technology to DC taxis to improve customer service. Riders overwhelmingly support many reforms, though they only like fare increases if service also improves. Drivers are skeptical that such changes are unnecessarily expensive.

Today, the DC Taxicab Commission approved a set of fare changes that increase the per-mile charge by 14% and the waiting charge by 67%. However, the per-passenger fee, the fees for large bags and small animals, the $1 fuel surcharge are all going away.

These aren’t the only changes that may come for DC taxis. Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced legislation in December to require credit card readers with printable receipts, security alert buttons, and GPS tracking devices in every cab. It would also require taxi companies to adopt a uniform citywide color scheme, purchase additional fuel-efficient vehicles, and provide drivers with customer service training.

The commission plans to fund these initiatives with a surcharge of 50¢ per trip. Ron Linton, chairman of the commission, sees the new surcharge as a critical element of the proposed bill. “The creation of the Consumer Service Fund insures that funds obtained through a passenger-paid surcharge will be used to improve the quality of services for passengers,” said Linton.

Other items in the bill would allow the taxicab commission to upgrade the fleet, carry out more inspections, provide incentives for drivers to purchase fuel-efficient cabs, and expand taxi service to all areas of the city.  The commission also plans to add more robust tracking systems to monitor overall taxicab performance.

Survey showed public support for reforms

Cheh’s office conducted an online survey about the provisions of the bill and taxi service in general. Responses by more than 4,000 metro area taxi riders showed that only 22% of respondents thought that the quality of taxi service in the District was good or excellent. 69% said it is worse than other major cities. The proposed taxi reform legislation and the requirement to accept credit cards found overwhelming support with 94% and 93% positive responses respectively.

In the survey, a majority of respondents supported higher taxi fares only if the quality of service improved.  Belinda Li, a Chicago-based management consultant, testified at the hearing on Cheh’s bill that the additional costs to hail a cab would put a burden on riders and potentially drive people away from riding taxicabs.

The hospitality industry supports the reforms as well. According to industry data, the District hosts over 17 million visitors a year, generating roughly $6 billion in expenditures in the city.  An improved taxi service would allow visitors to get to their hotels and other destinations safely and efficiently.

"This is something we have been working on for quite some time,” said Solomon Keene, President of the DC Hotel Association.  “DC is a world class city so we want to make sure that we provide a world class taxi service.”

Drivers less enthusiastic

Though the public supports the reforms, taxi companies have expressed opposition to the bill, citing cost concerns. The industry generally opposed the change from a zoning system four years ago to a meter system, and sees this new proposal as further undermining their ability to make a living. 

At a public hearing earlier this year, drivers testified that they felt the effects of the bill on the industry were not fully taken into account before the bill was drafted. They questioned how the fund will be managed and whether drivers will be compensated adequately for expenses incurred to retrofit their vehicles. It is also unclear how soon the reforms can be implemented, since funding from the surcharge won’t be available right away.

Other proposals may also affect taxi service in the District. In addition to Cheh’s bill, Council chairman Kwame Brown introduced a bill to require that 10% of all cabs be wheelchair-accessible within 4 years.

Long-term questions remain

Beyond the short-term issues of fare increases and who bears the costs of implementing the reforms, there are unaddressed long-term concerns about the management of the industry. When Tommy Wells chaired the council committee with oversight over taxis, he expressed interest in making more major structural changes, possibly abolishing the taxicab commission and moving responsibility into DDOT and/or DCRA. However, Cheh has not pursued this approach.

In addition, the Council also considered and dropped the concept of a medallion system.  Taxicab systems in major cities like New York and Chicago restrict the number of licenses issued and allow for licenses to be transferred between owners.  In an open system like the District’s it is relatively easy to operate a taxicab. As a result, independent operators saturate the market, making it easier for people on the street to get cabs, but driving down earnings for each driver.

In testimony at the public hearing, Belinda Li said that the District has one of the highest taxicab per-capita ratios in the country (12 per 1,000 residents), compared to Chicago (2.6 per 1,000 residents) and New York (1.6 per 1,000 residents). “The proposed bill,” Li said, “does not restrict new cab drivers and does nothing to address the current oversupply issue.” Not all residents may agree with Li about whether there is an “oversupply” today.

By choosing to put off addressing these fundamental challenges, the council will likely be forced to revisit taxi reform in the not-too-distant future.  Until then, the reforms in the current bill will modernize the taxi fleet and make for a more pleasant cab ride in the nation’s capital. Riders will be paying more, but should find that fewer surcharges make the final price less confusing as well.

Noel Popwell is the Founder and Principal of Gold Reef Data Solutions, a consultancy focused on non-profits and trade/membership associations. Noel earned his Bachelor of Arts in economics at Hunter College in New York and completed his Master of Public Administration at the American University in Washington, DC.