Why Not Have a Single, Strong Taxi Regulator for the Region?

The County Board is considering changing taxi fares for Arlington taxicabs, including an overall fare hike. No one really likes raising regulated prices for consumers, but in general, I agree that rising gas prices should be passed on to passengers.

This news leads me back to one of the great DC-area conundrums: Why on earth do we not have one, DC-area taxicab commission with the power to set rates, regulate drivers, and set sensible rules?

It is illegal in most (if not all) local jurisdictions for a non-locally regulated taxicab to pick up passengers curbside. DC’s law here and Arlington’s here. Thus, every day and evenings, dozens of taxis drive from DC to a nearby suburb, and return back to DC, empty. Every few minutes, there is a Red Top coming back over a bridge to Arlington, empty.

Why is it this way?

A couple of theories. First, our local jurisdictions do not cooperate with each other very well. But a better theory is that changing this would involve politicians ceding control over an area in which they can currently gain campaign contributions.

Further, the status quo increases the demand for taxis. That is, while a Red Top driver can’t pick up someone streetside (even if their destination is in Arlington!) in DC, that same driver is assured that a DC-registered taxi can not pick up “his” Arlington passenger on the street. Thus, overall, taxi drivers are better off with rules like this.

Because more cars are on the road to satisfy the same number of passengers, overall, traffic is worse because of these rules. So, the passengers lose doubly – we can’t flag down an empty taxi because it doesn’t have the proper sticker, and when we get a taxi, we are more likely to have to sit in traffic next to an empty cab.

In addition to being an anti-consumer arrangement, what’s mystifying is that there are two major exceptions to these rules. That is, the jurisdictions have found ways to cooperate. The first is National Airport.

National Airport is squarely within the boundaries of Arlington County. However, a person is driven from Arlington to DC, Maryland, or Virginia on a locally-licensed cab driver. Interestingly, this cab driver has to be doubly registered – that is, the taxi has to also be licensed to pick up at DCA in addition to the relevant local jurisdiction.

The other exception is the telephone-reservation rule. That is, if a person is going to Arlington, he can call an Arlington-licensed taxi company to pick him up in a jurisdiction other than Arlington. Same rule applies in DC.

This whole mess is governed by both local ordinances and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission (WMATC).

It is a byzantine array of rules. But it need not be.

A beefed-up and expanded WMATC could quite effectively create a set of rules, rates and licensing for the whole metro area. It could have the power to overrule silly rules that make both traffic and pollution worse. These rules should not just take into account the price of gas, but also traffic patterns, environmental concerns and working conditions for drivers in a way that reflects the reality that local commerce does not end at the banks of a river or a county line. A move like this requires real leadership from politicians who have a lot to gain from the current mess of a system, so it’s unlikely. But with traffic likely to get a lot worse in the region in the coming decades, it is sure cheaper than building a new Metro line or adding lanes to an interstate.

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One Response to Why Not Have a Single, Strong Taxi Regulator for the Region?

  1. Steve O says:

    Along the same lines, GreaterGreater Washington had an interesting post re: the Washington Flyer cabs a while back:

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