Wednesday, October 17



SAM SMITH - In a decision that effectively dismantles the best urban cab system in the country, Mayor Fenty has ordered local cabs to install meters. No other city has so many cabs per resident and at a reasonable cost. In no other city is the cab business such an important factor in upward economic mobility.

The system, which has worked effectively for decades, is now open to a hostile takeover by a few major corporations that will reduce the number of cabs and lobby for higher fares. These corporations had been effectively barred from the local cab industry because, under the zone system, there was no way of keeping track of how much the drivers were earning.

This is a tragic day in the history of DC. Going all the way back to the beginning of the 19th century, cabs have been an important way less wealthy residents could get ahead. From free blacks in the 1800s to newly arrived blacks from the south in the 1940s and 1950s to successive waves of immigrants in more recent times, the cab trade has been a way forward.

In his action, the mayor has destroyed not only an industry but an important part of the history and culture of the city.

The arguments by the Washington Post and others that a meter system is fairer is not supported by the facts. If there is one universal of the global cab industry it is that cabdrivers cheat, reflecting little more than that cabbies tend to be extraordinarily knowledgeable residents who do a lot of business with extraordinary ignorant visitors. A study by US News & World Report some years back found, in fact, that DC was no worse than most of the major cities it looked at. While the USN&WR study found overcharges of about 5 bucks on an DC airport run, it also reported that in New York one should ask a taxi dispatcher for the best route to your destination: "A driver who takes the Belt Parkway from JFK to midtown, for example, can add $20 to a $25 to $30 fare." The reporters were overcharged $5 bucks for a similar run in Chicago, cheated by limo drivers in San Francisco, reported occasional $20 overcharges in Boston, and so forth. Even the DC cab commission's own study found that passengers were overcharged only 17% of the time, while being undercharged 10% of the time. This in a city where, at the time, you needed to be conned by a factor of 50% to equal cab rates in many other places.

In an article for City Paper in 1994, I wrote of the possibility of a corporate takeover with meters:

|||| For the first time in our city's history, our cab industry will become attractive to big business. These corporations, if they follow the pattern, will seek not the free marketplace but rather the collaboration of the government in a massive restraint of trade. In the taxi industry this has been traditionally done through some sort of cap on the number of cabs. For example, a study by the Department of Justice found that 87 percent of some 100 cities with taxi service restricted entry in some way. Chip Mellor of the Institute for Justice has noted that Denver routinely turned down every application for a new taxicab company from 1947 on. Chicago and LA are closed. Boston's permit costs $60,000 and New York's $140,000.

A similar trend could be expected in DC as large -- and perhaps out-of-town -- corporations move to take advantage of taxi-metering. The impact on the industry could be phenomenal. If DC had proportionally as many cabs as Paris or London, our fleet would drop more than 90%. While DC has one cab for every 75 citizens, New York City has only one for every 600.

The question of cab service has become inexorably intertwined with attitudes towards immigration and with the ethnic economic triage under which the last to come to town lose. Although anti-immigrant prejudice is seldom explicit, its offspring crop up constantly in discussion of cab service -- concern over lack of knowledge of the city or cheating or "cleanliness." Since there is no evidence that DC cabs are any dirtier than those elsewhere, the question of cleanliness seems to suggest that something else is really being discussed here. |||


- Mayor Adrian Fenty's proposal to delete government e-mails after just six months flies in the face of open government and will make it easier for corruption to fester, District Council Member Phil Mendelson, D-at large, told The Examiner Tuesday. "It's incompatible with open and honest government," Mendelson said. "It has a very negative effect on the District's ability to fight public corruption." Mendelson is chair of the Council's Judiciary Committee and his comments represent the first challenge from an elected official to Fenty's proposal since it was quietly offered up earlier this year. If Fenty is successful, government officials will have e-mails wiped out every six months beginning next year. . . "There's a culture of secrecy in D.C. that doesn't exist in most places," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "It's not unusual for government agencies to at least clear out some old files. But six months seems ridiculously short." Fenty spokeswoman Carrie Brooks didn't respond to requests to comment.


THE BOARD OF TRADE joined fellow corporados in Maryland to fund a study that found that roadway congestion in the DC area costs the region more than $2 billion a year. According to the Examiner, "While the number of peak period travelers has increased by 71 percent since 1982, the number of lane-miles of freeways and connecting streets has only gone up by 35 percent, researchers found.". . . The BOT will undoubtedly see this as an excuse to build more highways but another way of looking at it is that it confirms the disaster which area transportation planning has been for the past few decades, first with emphasis on freeways followed by a sprawl-inducing subway system. The answer lies in making it possible for folks to get their business done without traveling so far, including not only self-sustaining neighborhoods but decentralized businesses so fewer employees have to travel as far to work.

LET'S SEE IF WE'VE got it straight. Only upscale residents are allowed to buy one drink at a time. We don't understand the constitutional basis for this, but if you're in the midst of an economic renaissance who bothers with such trivia. . . especially if it sends the poor folk somewhere else:

VOICE ON THE HILL - On Oct. 1 the city imposed a moratorium on the sale of single beers and half-pints of liquor for a seven-block stretch of H Street NE. Like other stores, Family Liquor does a significant amount of business in singles sales - big cans of Steel Reserve malt liquor or little bottles of vodka, for example, that cost a couple bucks. . . Singles-selling businesses up and down the strip agree the ban will hurt business. Hodge [of Family Liquor] thinks that's the whole point: "They want poor people out of the neighborhood. Let's be honest and realistic," he said. "They are dividing the community between the haves and the have-nots.". . . Hodge sees a double standard in the moratorium. A big part of H Street's revitalization has to do with nurturing the half-dozen new bars that have popped up, amounting to what may well be a net increase in drunkenness. "Have you ever looked and seen how many people are drunk and urinating coming out of the clubs?" asked Hodge, who said he sometimes sees such behavior after closing shop and walking up the street.

SCHOOLS CONSTRUCTION CAPO Allen Lew has cancelled yet another community meeting but in the double-talk the city government loves so much, it should be seen as a step forward, witness this note from the system: "There will not be a meeting this month. In an effort to make our public outreach efforts more meaningful and informative, in November, we will start a series of ward-wide meetings, sponsored in conjunction with each Ward Councilmember.". . . As school activist Marc Borbely notes, "Mr. Lew has been making major decisions with very little public input or accountability. It's great that Mr. Lew seems to have tons and tons plans for public outreach but we can't wait. Critical decisions are being made now."

EAVESDROPPING IN DC - Co-Worker 1: "You don't look so good today.". . . Co-Worker 2: "I'll try not to take that too personally.". . . Co-Worker 1: "No--I just mean in that, 'I have a disease' kind of way."

- [There have been] three reports of bats entering dorm rooms so far this semester. . . No one was injured and these are believed to be isolated events. . . The concern is that if bats were taking residence in dorms, their presence could pose potential health risks. Most of the recent rabies cases in the United States have been caused by bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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