In Defense of the Zone System


As I’ve written before, I disagree with your post on the end of D.C.’s zone system. Washington cabdrivers are overwhelmingly independent entrepreneurs and, earlier this week, they engaged in a legitimate Atlas Shrugged style withdrawal of their labor in protest of government regulations that threaten their livelihood. The zone system tends to raise the prices for short rides–which well off lawyers and lobbyists take–while providing a modest subsidy for poorer residents of the city’s outer neighborhoods. It does tend to let some cab drivers cheat tourists but, in my time in D.C., I think I’ve been cheated only once. On dozens of occasions, actually, drivers have knowingly undercharged me for short rides that happen to cross a zone line.

The system has also given D.C. the most entrepreneurial cab-driving class in the country. Since medallions are cheap and any car in good working order can function as a cab–there’s not even a mandate for full size cars–people who remain in the cab driving business are largely those who can figure a way of working the zone system in a way that benefits people. It also ends the practice of drivers trying to take the long route: good D.C. cabdrivers will always use shortcuts and avoid traffic because not doing so will cost them serious money. That tends to serve customers well because the zone boundaries follow the contours of the city’s neighborhoods and activity areas: the design strongly encourages cabs to roam the streets in places where people actually need them. The price of meters alone will kill off some cabbies in the short run: at about $1,000 each, they will add about 20 percent to the bare minimum cost of going into business as a cab driver.

A new metered system will introduce a much larger measure of government-imposed “order” and “legibility” to the system. Since only distance will matter, it will become somewhat easier to get a cab by picking up the telephone. (Right now, that’s near impossible–the one downfall of D.C.’s system.) This, in turn, will likely attract interests who want to regulate the independent cab driver out of existence with new “safety” standards and higher fees for medallions.

With a few years, D.C. will likely have a system like New York’s: fewer cabs, higher fares, and no chance of getting a cab during rush hour. Ick!