cab wars

Want to learn about corruption and venality in Washington politics? Jump in the back of a DC cab. Until a few years ago, the first thing you might have noticed was the indecipherable “zone” system  map – rather than distance or time, riders were charged based on the number of zones traveled. Even after years in DC, the complex algorithm drivers used to translate zones into dollars was a complete mystery me. I stepped out of lots of cabs puzzled and a little suspicious.

In 2007, after years of efforts to junk the zone system for something a little more rational, Michigan Senator Carl Levin, once himself a cabdriver, inserted a legislative provision mandating the transition from zones to meters (coverage here and here). Mayor Fenty pushed through the change, but oh the drama! Too many twists and turns, but the Post’s Marc Fisher and blogger DC Cab Rider offer a flavor of the madness. Many factors contributed to Fenty’s failure to win reelection, but I suspect he didn’t get many votes from DC’s cabbies (not least because they all live in Maryland and Virginia).

I like this example, because it has all the ingredients of regulatory lock-in: large change-over costs, institutionalized knowledge and routine, and powerful interests who benefit from existing rules. It’s one of those subjects I wish I had time to study! Now, the DC Taxicab Commission faces a new challenge – Uber, a start-up that offers on-demand cars through a smartphone app. Here’s a bit from TPM blogger Carl Franzen:

The D.C. Taxicab Commission had been after Uber almost from the moment the disruptive cab alternative launched in the District, with Chairman Ron Linton staging a high-profile “sting” on one of the company’s contractor drivers in January, fining the driver and impounding his vehicle for allegedly running afoul of D.C. taxi regulations, specifically the fact that driver was charging by mileage, which only cabs are allowed to do, and he should have been charging by time. Tech blogs and Uber fans cried foul, with some accusing the D.C. Taxicab Commission of cronyism.

Captured regulators! Disruptive technology! As a DC  resident, it’s a little depressing – but as a student of politics and policy, I’m honestly taken by the whole mess.


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