DC Scraps Zone System, Cabbies Threaten To Strike

Cab rides in Washington will soon be cheaper thanks to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s decision to scrap the DC’s antiquated and expensive zone system in favor of the modern meter system found in any respectable city. Cheaper fares for residents means less profit for cabbies. Said one: “There is no way we can make a living on a [time-and-distance] meter.”

“The talk of a strike is in the formulation plans,” said Nathan Price, a driver for Yellow Cab Company of D.C. Inc. and a spokesman for the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association (PTDA).

Mr. Price said the group represents about 500 city cabdrivers. “It’s to send a message … that we’re going to fight. The strike is for real.”

A June study performed by George Washington University for the taxi commission compared fares for identical trips measured by taxis using meters and the zone system.

For most shorter trips, meter fares were cheaper than zone fares. For longer trips, zone fares were generally cheaper.

Mr. Fenty’s decision was mandated by a provision placed in D.C. legislation by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, that forced Mr. Fenty to require the switch to meters by yesterday. The mayor could have opted out of the order and kept the current zone system, which was established by Congress and dates back to the Depression era.

The senator — who has complained publicly about receiving different cab fares over the years for the same trip — yesterday praised Mr. Fenty’s choice.

“Mayor Fenty’s decision is the right one,” Mr. Levin said. “Washington is a world-class capital city with a strong mayor, and his decision reflects that.”

Cabbies – who in 1932 lambasted the zone system as discriminatory – are threatening a Halloween strike if the meter system is adopted.

Fenty orders D.C. taxis to adopt meters [Washington Times]
(Photo: Daquella manera)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Rando says:

    All the cabbies in Cincinnati easily make a living off meters. They’re just being cry babies.

  2. ludwigk says:

    @randotheking: Exactly. New York has a meter system, and a higher cost of living, and, straighter frikkin roads and supports bunches of cabbies.

    Think of it this way: the roads in DC are purposefully circuitous, and it takes longer to get anywhere useful from any other point. meter system should be pretty decent in a city like DC

  3. Buran says:

    If you can’t make a living off meters, then why do cabbies everywhere else manage it?

  4. full.tang.halo says:

    What was that thing they always say about history….
    oh yea, if you don’t study it your doomed to repeat it, case in point, class dismissed.

  5. evilfremen says:

    DC residents have been waiting on this forever. The real issue is, like the mention in the study is that cabs don’t really cost on average any more or any less under a zone system (just different amounts depending on the distance), but that cabbies charge whatever they feel like. The zone map doesnt feature streets, and is ually faded to the point of illegibility. Therefore, cabbies can get away with whatever, and you can never challenge them. I know the zones very well, and have gotten into 15 minute arguments with cabbies over fares, and it is just their word versus yours. Its a system in which tourist dont stand a chance, which isn’t very great in a city that has a thriving tourist industry. I think this was a good decision, though I am not too happy that it was done by a Congressional mandate, but that gets into a whole discussion…

  6. CaptainSemantics says:

    @Buran: That’s exactly what I was thinking the entire time I read this.

  7. parse says:

    Evilfremen’s comment makes sense where the article doesn’t–there’s no way a zone system is inherently more expensive than a meter system. That would be entirely dependent on how the zones were mapped and the fare charged for travel to each zone versus the time and distance rate established by the meter. Evilfremen also makes Levin’s comment that he has paid the different fares for the same trip comprehensible–under a zone system properly administered, that wouldn’t happen.

    It seems what would be fair to cabbies and passengers would be to scrap the zone system, because it’s vulnerable to abuse by dishonest drivers, and institute a meter system that delivers equitable pay for the work that the driver’s due. How much do DC cabbies make in an average day currently, and how much are they likely to make once the meter starts running?

  8. Major-General says:

    @evilfremen: Nothing in DC happens without a Congressional mandate.

  9. Yogambo says:

    It’s interesting to hear the cabbies now saying they can’t make a living with a meter. As noted here, that’s a pretty specious argument. Previous to the passage, they were pushing a whole other agenda, saying that implementing meters would increase costs and open the doors for conglomerate cab companies that would push the independents out of business. I don’t remember all the logic of it, but for some reason, having a meter costs them more…and so they’d all be pushed into either joining a company that can underwrite that expense or to just go out of business.

    Living here, I can tell you the cabbies are a generally friendly lot until you get near their paychecks. The zone system was as queer a bird as you’d find in any metro area but they grew to love and depend on it. Seems like its time for them to grow up.

  10. ry81984 says:

    I went to DC last May for the first time. I was caught off guard by the zone system. I have been to many big cities and even used taxis in smaller towns. Everyone uses a meter system.

  11. Gari N. Corp says:

    An end to a system where a cabbie can structure a 5-minute cab ride through three zones and charge you what he hell he likes? Well that WILL be a pity…

  12. InThrees says:

    I don’t really see the argument here, unless the metered value is also being mandated and the cab drivers feel it is too low.

    1. switch to meters.
    2. set meter rates at competitive yet ‘in the black’ rates.
    3. profit as usual.

  13. pyloff says:

    Too bad they don’t have a union, maybe your strike would have meant something.

  14. XTC46 says:

    @InThrees: they wouldnt even have to raise the distance/time rate. just the initial pick up rate. The reason they like the zones if i’m not mistaken is that if you hang out on the edge of a zone and just do runs between 2 or 3 different zones you can make a premium in a short drive. that benefit would be gone if it were distance based.

  15. Falconfire says:

    not likely, even in NYC where they have a union and they where striking against the installation of GPS/credit card meters, barely 20% of the cabbies struck.

    Thing with cabbies is for every one who strikes, there are a good 3-4 who would willingly take their place and force the striker out of their job with no remorse whatsoever.

  16. XTC46 says:

    what is the point of a 24hr strike? Isn’t the purpose of a strike to stop work until you get what you want? its like those stupid emails that say “don’t buy gas on x day” it makes no difference because the next day its business as usual.

  17. azntg says:

    To NYC and DC cabbies: Welcome to the 21st century! Now, back to work please and may it be a pleasant one!

  18. Consumerist Moderator - ACAMBRAS says:

    In many Latin American countries, there are no meters — fares are simply negotiated with the cabbie at the beginning of the trip.

    A little off-topic fun-fact for ya.

  19. Elvisisdead says:

    They’re upset because they can’t screw tourists, drunks, and Virginians any more for not knowing zones. Cabbies in DC are notorious for driving in such a way as to clip an extra zone. Especially the trip from the Hill to Adam’s Morgan. They always try to turn it into a 3 zone trip.

    They’ll also try to screw you for a full fare to each address if you drop someone off on the way.

    I refuse to argue with them. I know exactly how many zones it is and how much it should cost. If they try to cheat me, I pay them what it costs and get out. I’ve gotten into shouting matches with them from my front steps plenty of times.

    The zone maps do have streets on them, but you also have to know the most efficient way to drive somewhere.

  20. timmus says:

    @xtc46: Well, with a gas boycott, people will just plan around it…the gas gets consumed on boycott day so either way it’s money in the bank for the oil companies. Thus gas boycott day is the pinnacle of stupidity. Not being able to get a cab? That’s a little different.

  21. LionelEHutz says:

    DC cabbies are basically thieves who cop an attitude when you catch them in the act of going through multiple zones when they don’t have to just to screw you out of money. They’re one of the reasons to hate DC.

  22. tedyc03 says:

    It is possible with zones to be standing in four different ones all at the same time, particularly in parts of Southeast DC. A cab ride across the street could encompass three zones, and that’s a huge problem. Time-and-distance makes the most sense.

  23. Crim Law Geek says:

    Out of curiosity since I have never been in a DC Cab, how does one (including the driver) know when a zone boundary has been crossed? Is there a street sign somewhere? Or is a meter somehow triggered by a zone boundary?

  24. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    @Elvisisdead: Oh yeah – same here. I’ve flat out refused to pay the fare, and then they try to scare me by telling me they’re calling the cops. “OK, you do that. I’ll sit here until they arrive” and 4 times out of 5, they just buckle and say “ok, instead of $25, just pay me $10”. The cops, even when called, will side with the passenger most of the time. So rule of thumb, just argue with them! They’re just pissed because now they have to actually account for their time spent during the day, and they can’t skim off the top. Heaven forbid!

  25. zolielo says:

    @thirdgen: There are zone maps and charts…

    I too have hated the zone system as what should be a 2 zone trip seemingly always ends up being a 3 zone trip.

    Meters, in my point of view are a far more egalitarian system.

  26. Trai_Dep says:

    Will they still be able to find me hookers & hooch? Because that’s what’s really important.

  27. @parse: “there’s no way a zone system is inherently more expensive than a meter system.”

    Yeah, I found that a sort-of interesting contention. In Chicago, cabs to the suburbs from the airports (or vice versa) are flat-rate based on the suburb … because if they’re metered, they cost an arm and a leg, and the meter also doesn’t adjust for the time saved on the fare by using the expressways instead of driving in city traffic.

    The burbs would rise up in revolt if someone tried to take away their flat-rate (“zone”) cabs in favor of meters!

    (Not that Chicago’s cab system isn’t weird in its own ways; for the longest time, cabs couldn’t wait in lines at the airport for fares; EVERYONE had to call ahead for a specific cab from massive phone banks near baggage claim. Very confusing for visitors. Now that we all have cell-phones and it’s not so crisis-inducing, they allow cab queues. There was some Daley-esque logic to the whole thing but I forget what it was.)

  28. You’ll also note that there are way, wayyyy too many cabs in the D.C. metro area. The supply is very likely going to be thinned by this measure.

  29. lhutz34 says:

    Cabbies will occasionally try to roll me, but they rarely put up a fight when I call them on it. I had one guy tried to convince me I had hailed him at Florida and 16th (Zone 2), when I had intentionally crossed U st. to keep the whole trip in Zone 1. He stammered a bit, but all it did was cost him his tip.

    But if I eve get this particular cabbie, i pay him whatever he wants:


  30. XianZomby says:

    I’ve heard before, and maybe somebody can verify: DC switched to the “zone system,” based on a Congressional vote. The intent was to lower costs for elected officials to move around the city during rush hour. The idea makes sense, for them at least, because on a meter system you pay for time as well as distance. So during rush hour traffic, you may pay three or four times as much to go just one mile than you would to go the same mile in the middle of the night, with no traffic. The “zone system” ensures that you pay the same price to go anywhere in the same zone, no matter how long it takes to get there.

    I’ve talked to DC taxi drivers before, and some tell me they won’t drive during rush hour, because they can make no money then.

  31. czbrock says:

    Now if only we can get them to switch to hybrid fueled cabs!

  32. Falconfire says:

    the funny thing about DC is though, their subway system is AWSOME. I try not to take cabs period unless there is no other way (Baltimore and Santa Monica are the only two places I have been where I was forced to) but I wouldnt even think twice about using DCs subways unlike Philly and NYC. The metro in DC has to be the cleanest subway I have EVER been in.

  33. DCGaymer says:

    Bring on the meter’s.

    I’ve had driver’s try to scam me for year’s on the zone system. I used to live half a block away from U street on 16th…they were constantly trying to drive up 15th to U, and then come back….claiming we’d crossed a fair zone…even though I’d told them where to turn.

    Another scam unscrupulous DC cabbies use is to confuse people by saying the word “fifteen” as in fifteen dollar’s as “fitty” dollars. If you’re foreign or not from the DC area…you assume he’s saying $50.00 dollar’s. If you ask him to repeat himself…they’ll usually say it again…when you ask, “Did you say fifteen or fifty”…they’ll usually only then come clean and say the word, “fifteen”. It’s a good idea to just say, “Write it out for me…I need a receipt.” it slow’s them down … and they really hate that.

  34. JustAGuy2 says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:

    When did they not allow cab ranks at the airports? I grew up in Chicago, and remember them at O’Hare and Midway since at least the early 80s…

  35. Falconfire says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: We have both in the tri-state area, and it works very well. The cabs in my city (Linden) are fare if your driving around the area, but once you state a specific location like one of the area malls, or Newark Airport, it then becomes a flat rate fee.

  36. caj11 says:

    I used to live in DC and the only time I took the cabs was when I was out late and had no choice when the metro system quit running at midnight. The cabbies were always rude, their cars were nearly falling apart and they always tried to screw me on fares in the zone system. Screwing me on fares was one thing, but what I hated the most was cab drivers that refused to take me at all because I wanted to go somewhere where they didn’t (i.e., not as many potential fares for them coming back). A threat to complain about them to the DC Taxicab Commission was an empty one – that city agency was a joke and continues to be – but then I got smart and said I had friends who worked for Immigration & Naturalization Services who could review their status at any time (if that makes me a racist or bigot, so be it, I was just trying to get home). Suddenly the cab drivers became very compliant and were happy to take me wherever I desired (I always paid the correct fare too). The fact that the drivers were refusing to take me on a legitimate trip for a fully-paid fare made me so mad – they knew what they were in for when they signed up for the job, so they should do their job. Then the metro system extended their hours on weekends and my usage of cabs became few and far between.

  37. southerndem says:

    The problem with meters is that they cost money. DC has a lot of independent cabbies who are able to make good livings partially as a result of the low costs of entry and maintenance preserved by the lack of expensive meters. Installing meters is going to cost a lot of money. What would you say if Congress passed a law saying you had to spend $2,000 by January in order to continue at your job? I’d be fucking pissed. If Fenty or Levin wanted to step up and pay for the meter installation he’d get a lot more support from cabbies.

    Anyone complaining about being ripped off by the zone system is just dumb (for not being able to read the zone map and fee description in the cab). If you don’t like what you’re getting charged, you can refuse to pay it. And frankly, I’m ok with a system that overcharges for short cab rides. You have legs. Learn to fucking walk four blocks.

  38. caj11 says:


    Well, the state of New Jersey passed a law three years ago that said I’d have to spend an extra $75 a year to continue with my job (I’m a lawyer and apparently all lawyers in New Jersey are causing doctors to “flee” the state, hence this fee to create a medical malpractice claims fund, even though I don’t do medical malpractice law and never will, along with 98% of the other lawyers in the state). Granted its not as much money, but the point is the taxicab drivers each have their own little “business” its not really a job per se (they are not employees of the cab companies, they just lease cars from them). Things pop up all the time that add to the cost of running a business. I’m also not sure these meters will cost $2000 either.

  39. taney71 says:


    The problem with the current system is that even if you know the zones and all the rates the cabs argue with you and try to cheat you every time you take a ride. Again, many people don’t know the zones and the maps in the cabs are not DETAILED which means not all the information is there for the customer. The norm should be good business, not bad behavior.

    Also, the 2,000 example doesn’t make sense. Many jobs require extra costs now and then (either to make work safer or customers lives better). This is no different. A meter in every cab makes DC citizens and tourists life much easier because DC cabies have decided cheating customers is good business. Would you argue that various government regulations on food safety and other products is bad because it adds a cost on business? Even Adam Smith realized that businesses can be regulated in a free market.

  40. kimsama says:

    @taney71: I have to say, I’ve never been cheated with the zone system (I make liberal use of the fare calculator and know the streets I want them to go on), but I agree with you that tourists and the like are getting unfair treatment. I also agree that regulation of industry = yay.

    And frankly, doesn’t anyone else hope this will clean up the taxi industry in DC by weeding out the shady people? I can’t tell you how many times I have refused a cab in DC because it’s old, dirty, smelly, and looks unsafe. I much prefer NoVa’s metered (cleaner, newer, safer) cabs. It’ll be great if this moves DC in that direction. Sometimes a high entry cost is a good thing.

  41. taney71 says:

    Almost forgot. Least you think me to be pro-government regulation at every turn I believe the cab system should not exist as it does in the D.C. area to be a jobs program. Also, it’s one thing to go to a time/distance meter system, it’s another thing for that system to be based on reasonable rates. I think if D.C. allows for market forces to work with some government regulations (i.e., monitoring of the meters) citizens should see lower rates. Particularly on shorter rides.

  42. moorie679 says:

    Well, zone system like many of you has pointed out will result in tourists getting screwed over. However with the distance meters, same problem could be observed considering, if you are new to DC you are going to have no clue as to how to get to your destination. Cabbie could just take the long way home ( great supertramp song by the way. ).

    This has happened to me in NY, I missed my connection and had to go to a motel for a night, jumped into a cab, the driver asked me how to get to my hotel…….me not being from NY told him that I did not know……I ended up with a $50.00 cab ride going throught the expressway etc etc. To this day I still do not know if he took me out on a joy ride or if that was the shortest route…..

    The best way in my opinion would be, ( i think i came across this in Vegas…not quite sure…) to have the average fares posted…..like airport to luxor = $20 etc etc…. and I highly doubt taxi meters cost $2000, even if they did I am pretty sure it would be tax detectable or subsidized……people just dont like change i guess…..

  43. moorie679 says:

    friggin spell checker messed up my post…..I meant to say deductible…..

  44. Falconfire says:

    @southerndem: Im required to spend a good 500-1000 a year on certifications to keep my job. Teachers in NJ are required to take 100 credit hours in “retraining” every 3 years much not covered by their districts. Many jobs have requirements like that. Thats not a excuse in the least regardless of if the government is making you do it, or your boss. If you want the job, you do it. If your going to bitch then there are plenty of people to move in and take your place for in many cases, less money.

  45. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    I hope NYC cabs are running at 5:30am….because I’m NOT taking the subway at 5:30am after an overnight and a transfer at LAX.

  46. Why can’t they just do what everyone else does and drive slower to catch red lights?

  47. melmoitzen says:

    @Elvisisdead: “They’re upset because they can’t screw tourists, drunks, and Virginians any more for not knowing zones.”

    I don’t think so–you don’t have to screw tourists, drunks and Virginians (and risk losing your hack license if one of them happens to be an undercover hack inspector or files a grievance) to earn a decent living, and most probably didn’t. Not when the zone system made this a cash business leaving little if any documentation.

    I suspect meters mean that the IRS and D.C. Treasurer are the major players who will be getting unscrewed once meters are in place.

  48. dariaclone says:

    @moorie679: Well, it’s actually a lot easier to tell if you’ve been going East the whole time versus East, West, North, then East. So, it is easier to tell if you are getting ripped off with the meter system than the magical zone system where a tourist can’t even figure out where they stop and start.

  49. RagingBoehner says:

    @Gari N. Corp: Technically a driver can’t “run you through 3 zones” since the number of zones between Point A and Point B is defined. Doesn’t matter if you do a lap around the beltway in between — only where you start and where you finish. Of course, passengers don’t often know enough to question the drivers so they end up getting screwed. For me, if a driver tries to quote me the wrong price, then too bad. Just give them what they’re owed plus tip and move on.

    I think meters are generally a good move since it’s more transparent and shorter trips will at least be cheaper (and trips out of the city currently run on odometer, which is idiotic) — but brace yourselves for complaints from people getting charged for sitting in traffic or from drivers taking indirect routes to run up the meter.

  50. RagingBoehner says:

    @southerndem: At least they can deduct the $2000 meter cost (is it really that much) from the income tax (including DC’s sky-high income tax, and 15% FICA) they’ll have to start paying now. The cost of the meter has nothing on that.

  51. xamarshahx says:

    FINALLY, those DC cabbies would always rip you off and then never want to show you their zone cards to prove their outrageous rates. They would also charge their zone rate, plus a per person surcharge. A cab ride of a few blocks with your family would end up costing $15. They are protesting because they can’t rip people off when a meter says how much is owed instead of their imagination.

  52. Elvisisdead says:

    @melmoitzen: Are you kidding me? Have you been to DC and taken a cab? DC government is a wreck. Do a little Googling to determine the state of the DC treasury. They can’t get their own act together, nevermind taking on complex issues like changing cab fee calculation methods.

    Hack inspector? Are you serious? If they even exist, it’s like throwing a lit match into a volcano. Doesn’t make a difference.

    DC is the only place I’ve been for any extended period of time that I’ve been consistently on my guard about cab fare. Not just in DC proper, either. When taking a cab home from the airport, I can’t count the number of times that a cabbie “adjusted” my bags when I put them in the trunk myself and tried to charge me a handling fee.

    For non-DC folks, there are no indicators of zones anywhere but on the zone map in the cab or online. No markers on the streets to indicate when you’re leaving a zone.

    Yeah, the threaten to call the cops thing always tickled me. I did the same thing. I’ll wait, and you better let me out of the cab, or the cop won’t like that you’re detaining me without cause. The “that’s all I have” thing always worked, too. Note to everyone: always have exact change and be able to pull exact out of your pocket so the cabbie can’t tell how much cash you have.

  53. melmoitzen says:

    Re: Comments about running up the meter. Running up the meter is largely a matter of passenger perception. Has it happened before? Of course it has. But the economics of doing so (not to mention the risks) usually don’t make sense from the driver’s perspective, unless you’re his last run of the day.

    Metered taxi fares in all major cities are structured with a relatively high minimum fare the moment you step into the cab.


    Because of this, a cabbie handed nothing but short runs will make a helluva lot more than the cabbie handed (or creating) a longer run.

    A cabbie’s goal after getting a long fare is usually to get back into the downtown area as quickly as possible so they can keep churning a high number of short runs. Time spent running up a fare only stands in the way of this goal.

  54. melmoitzen says:

    @Elvisisdead: I’m in DC every day, have taken a DC taxi at least ten times a year over the last 20 years, and have never been overcharged.

    Point being, the elephant in the room that DC taxi drivers don’t want to acknowledge, in spite of their protests, has nothing to do with a potential new fare structure. It’s converting their business from a cash-business honor system to a system that will provide full documentation of all but their tip income.

    And if you wave revenue collection opportunities under the nose of the DC government, you’d be surprised at how they suddenly become very efficient. Feel free to curse the DPW parking ticket writers and their reason for being, but you’ve got to admit DC focuses resources there effectively.

  55. Ass_Cobra says:


    “They’ll also try to screw you for a full fare to each address if you drop someone off on the way.”

    When I lived in DC, the security at my building had to forcibly remove a cabbie from the building lobby and then driveway. I lived on Connecticut about 2 blocks up from Porter. A friend and I were coming back from Adam’s Morgan and she jumped out at her building which was directly north of the zoo. When we pulled into my building the guy told me the ride was $19.

    I was completely taken aback. I’d taken that cab many times and it was $11 with tip, max. He explained to me that my friend had gone 2 zones and I had gone three zones to which I promptly replied bullshit. Every other time I’d done that it was 2 zones and whenever splitting a cab it was like an extra 1.50 charge per person. He completely flipped and told me it was three zones for me, 2 zones for my friend and I had to pay full fare for both of them. He was counting going to Connecticut avenue (which divides a zone iirc) as crossing into another zone and giving me this full fare farce.

    I gave him $9 which would be the initial of 5+1.50 for my friend and 2.30 for the additional zone and offered him a tip if he wanted to quit being such a dick. He refused so I got out and he followed me into my lobby bearating me and asking me if I couldn’t afford to pay him because my rent was too much. The lobby security told him to leave and he wouldn’t he was yelling at me until the point that I got to my elevator with the night doorman blocking him from getting to me.

    I came back down after a few minutes to apologize for the disturbance and they told me they had to grab him by the arm and drag him out of the lobby and instruct him to leave. Then he sat in his car honking for a few minutes before they called the police. He obviously took off before the cops came and I am not sure what the ultimate resolution was but long story short, DC cabbies are not above trying to rip drunken college students, Virginians and others that shouldn’t be trusted to travel alone.

  56. dsb51 says:

    I was in Washington D.C. once (I think it was over 20 years ago). I thought the zone fare system was very unacceptable. You could be 2 blocks from the address that you want to go to but because of the zone fare system you had to pay the full fare even though you only had to go 2 blocks.

    I’m glad they’ve joined the rest of the U.S. and gone with meters.

  57. Elvisisdead says:

    @melmoitzen: And I would also bet that you pretty much stick to 1 or 2 zone trips. Probably from your end point to a metro station or Union instead of to your residence. Probably when it’s raining or too hot/cold/late to make the walk, right?

    I absolutely agree that they can write tickets and deal with parking effectively. I doubt that you would disagree that it’s just about the only thing that they do effectively.