- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

The city’s hacks are in a lather because of the Fenty administration’s decision to eliminate the much-abused zone system in favor of the metered system that is employed in other major cities.

One of the problems with the zone system was the let-your-conscience-be-your-guide element to it. Cabdrivers could charge passengers whatever they wanted, with the help of the 22 concentric circles emanating from downtown. Each circle represented a zone and several extra dollars on the fare once a cabbie crossed it.

Most passengers, especially tourists, cannot be expected to be educated about a system that was devised by someone suffering from all kinds of anal-retentive issues. The person who came up with this convoluted system undoubtedly wore a pocket protector, Coke-bottle glasses and had not been out in the sun in years.

It was cruel and unusual torture to hop into a taxi, particularly if the cabbie felt inclined to treat you like dirt while listening to the tape of a sermon in a foreign tongue. It was the equivalent of fingernails being dragged against a chalkboard, only the cabbie offended by your presence billed you for the unpleasant experience.

Not too long ago, taxi etiquette required a cabbie to ask the following of a passenger: How about the weather today? How about those Redskins, Wizards, Nationals or Caps? Are you from around here? Now, too many cabbies are obligated to transfer all their grievances onto a passenger, as if it is somehow the passenger’s fault the cabbie had to flee a faraway land because of exploitative monarchy.

As someone who has taken a zillion cabs from Glover Park to Adams Morgan and back, I no longer am surprised by the ever-fluctuating fare. The cabbies usually grunt out a few words at the end of the ride, and that is that. At least they do not spit in your face.

The zone system virtually encouraged an upside-down way of thinking. One late weekend night, in a raging downpour, the cabbie refused to drop off the other passenger about a block away without imposing the full fare. So we split the fare and hustled to our respective places, but not without getting soaked.

Disclaimer: I cannot speak for all the cabbies who work all the thoroughfares around the city. I am merely speaking from considerable anecdotal experience. So please, cabbies, hold your complaints.

I know it was not your fault that some of your colleagues liked to bilk their unsuspecting passengers under the zone system. And I know yours is a tough racket. I defer to your instincts when it comes to debating whether to pick up two suspicious-looking characters at 1 a.m. It is too easy for the high-minded and lawmakers to rail against safety-minded cabbies, because they are not on the streets at 1 a.m., having to make quick assessments of a potential fare who just might be the one who sticks a gun in the back of a cabdriver’s head.

For now, most of the hacks in the city see doom and gloom with the impending metered system. They say it will drive many of them out of business, which perhaps would be a good thing. A decrease in hacks would mean more fares for those who remain in the business.

Otherwise, the metered system is a positive development for both the hacks and passengers. There will be no more mystery in the process. There will be no more plucking a number out of the air because of imaginary boundaries. A meter will read what it reads, and that will be the end of the discussion.

And if there is a raging downpour in the wee hours, the hack could drop off one passenger and restart the meter to take the other passenger a block away. That is a simpler and fairer system for all parties.

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