Photo by azipaybarah on Flickr.

Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) got into a dispute with a cab driver over a fare, refused to pay the driver, then left in a different cab. Is this a “ride-and-ditch” scandal, as the City Paper dubbed it? Or was Nadler doing what any of us would do?

What happened: Nadler got in a cab at Union Station and went to the Channel Inn, on Water Street in Southwest. He asked the cabbie to keep the meter running while he dropped off his luggage, then take him to Capitol Hill.

In New York, this would be perfectly acceptable. But, as it turns out, that’s not the case in DC. Instead, according to the taxi laws, the meter has to be reset and a new trip started, including the $3 “flag drop” charge.

Or maybe not. The Hill reports that Taxi Commission Chair Leon Swain says Nadler is right. But DCTC’s FAQ seems to say that if the rider originally asks for one destination, then arrives and wants to continue to another, it’s counted as a second trip. It’s also another trip if the second leg is a round trip or not “in one direction.” That’s probably the case for a trip from Union Station to the Channel Inn to the House side of Capitol Hill, depending on the definition of “one direction.”

Either way, it’s confusing. New York’s method of simply keeping the meter running until the passenger gets out of the taxi makes a lot more sense.

Worse yet, it appears that if a group of people get in a cab to different destinations, they also have to pay multiple flag drop fees. According to 31 DCMR §801.7:

In cases where more than one passenger enters a taxicab at the same time on a pre-arranged basis (group riding) bound for different destinations, in addition to the applicable charges set out in this section, the fare shall be charged as follows: Whenever a passenger gets out, the fare shall be paid, the meter shall be reset, and the last passenger shall pay the remaining fee;

Does “the meter shall be reset” involve charging the $3 flag drop all over again? I called DCTC, and the person I spoke to thought that was right. I didn’t know this. Did you?

Compared to other cities, DC’s taxi fare structure is quite hostile to groups of people sharing cabs. Not only do we have a $1.50 surcharge per passenger, which isn’t present in NYC or many other cities, but in addition, someone can’t get out halfway along a route without adding an extra $3 to the overall fare.

Nadler probably thought this driver was trying to scam him. If I had been in a cab with one or two other people and the driver had tried to charge another $3 flag drop to drop off someone along the way, or had tried to charge it after making a stop, I’d probably have thought that as well.

I’ve gotten in debates with taxi drivers before, like when one refused to take the route I asked. In that case, I also got out of that cab and into a different one. Nadler is going to send the driver the payment he had originally expected anyway, which is the right thing to do. But this could have happened to anyone, thanks to the way some drivers seem to scam for extra money, and the law is so nonsensical, confusing, or counterintuitive that someone might logically believe they are being scammed even if they’re not.

Taxi drivers say the current rates are too low for them to make decent money. If that’s the issue, extra high fees for groups is not a good answer. The fares should simply reflect what’s necessary to keep enough taxis on the road.

(Disclosure: I used to live in Nadler’s district and have met him a few times. I also have a friend who works for him, but I found out about this independently.)

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.