Traditional taxicab drivers are in trouble and they don't even know it yet. 

Confession time: Ever since we launched Cities last fall, I've ended up taking a taxi to work in the morning more often than is really prudent for my household budget. The offices for The Atlantic happen to be situated in one of the least transit-friendly spots in Washington, D.C. and, you know, sometimes I'm in a hurry.

Good for the taxi drivers, bummer for my wallet, right? After all taxis, at least in cities where they are plentiful and can be hailed from the street, are supposed to fill exactly this niche: Being there for people who need a car to take them where they're going, right this second.

Over the last couple of months, though, my taxi expenditures have plummeted, and it's not because I've magically stumbled upon a way to make my early mornings less hectic. Nor is it because I've needed fewer post-happy hour rides home in the evenings.

I'm just taking fewer traditional cabs, and I'm not the only one. As D.C.'s taxi drivers threaten to strike next week over a raft of new policies intended to modernize the city's cab fleet, they should be aware of several fundamental changes beginning to take hold not only in this city but across some of America's largest metro areas. D.C.'s drivers argue the costs of modernizing (things like installing credit card machines and GPS trackers) are just too high in this economy. I'd argue that failure to keep up with the times will put taxi drivers out of business far quicker.

•       •       •       •       •

In the past decade, the District of Columbia has become an uncommonly great place to live without owning a car.

It was pretty decent before then, to be fair. Between the Metrorail and public bus systems, the city's relatively compact geography, and an unusually high ratio of taxicabs per person (an estimated 12 per 1,000 residents, compared to Chicago's 2.6 or New York's 1.6 per 1,000 residents), car-less D.C. residents have been able to get by fairly well for some time.

Car-sharing giant Zipcar came to town in the early part of the last decade, and living here without a car got even better. The innovative Circulator bus system launched in 2005. Then came roughly 50 miles of new bike lanes and hundreds of bike racks installed all over the city. The very first bike-sharing system in the U.S. launched in D.C. in 2008, which later expanded to become the largest and most successful such program in the country. The last year alone has seen the app-based Towncar-on-demand service Uber and the park-at-your-destination car-sharing start-up Car2Go expand into Washington, too.

The proliferation of transportation alternatives in D.C. has been fantastic for residents who don't necessarily want to rely on a personal vehicle and enjoy having so many choices.

It's much less fantastic if you're one of the city's more than 8,000 traditional taxicab drivers.

Concrete numbers that evidence a decline in the average number of taxi trips taken in D.C. are virtually impossible to come by, thanks in large part to the city's historically loosely regulated cab industry. (We have so many more drivers because we don't have a medallion system, which means the District's cab fleet is dominated by independent owner-operators who don't report to a dispatcher or an umbrella company that would carefully track their trips). Anecdotal evidence, however, is beginning to pile up.

(Sommer Mathis)

A recent customer survey from Capital Bikeshare, the metro area's rapidly expanding bike-share service that already boasts 18,000 members, found that 56 percent of more than 5,000 respondents reported taking fewer taxi rides since joining the service. As the newest entry in the city's public transportation landscape, CaBi has turned out to be uniquely well positioned to take the place of a quick taxi ride. It's become quite normal, just for example, to see business suit-wearing men and women downtown zipping to their next meeting on those bright red bikes. With its annual membership fee of $75 which includes all trips up to 30 minutes, replacing even one weekly $10 cab ride across town with a Bikeshare ride pays for itself in under two months.

Uber, the on-demand private car service that launched not without controversy in D.C. in December (see also Megan McArdle's smart piece on Uber from the May issue of The Atlantic), declined to share any specifics about the number of trips its customers have taken so far, but general manager Rachel Holt says the D.C. market is already the company's third largest, just behind San Francisco, its first city, and New York, with its considerably larger population. Uber, of course, is more expensive than a typical cab ride, so it's likely there's a decent percentage of Uber rides that ought to be classified more as limo replacement as opposed to taxi replacement. Uber is a "much more pleasant experience than a cab," Holt says, and she's not exaggerating. The Uber-affiliated drivers who have picked me up mere minutes after I've requested a car through the company's iPhone app usually get out and open my door for me, something I can't recall a D.C. taxi driver ever doing. But it's that level of service and reliability that's led an increasing number of acquaintances to swear off regular taxis altogether, especially since per-mile taxi rates in D.C. went up in April. A three-mile Uber ride generally costs $15 to $20. A three-mile taxi ride now runs between $10 and $13, depending on traffic.

(Sommer Mathis)

The biggest D.C. taxi industry game-changer of them all could actually be Car2Go. The all-Smart Car car-sharing fleet from Daimler launched here in March with about 200 vehicles, and I have personally already used it instead of a taxi nearly a dozen times. Two things distinguish Car2Go from Zipcar, its closest competitor: it charges by the minute instead of the hour, and customers can park and end their rentals at their destinations instead of having to return the car to the same spot where they picked it up. In D.C., the company negotiated with the city to allow its customers to park in any legal public spot, including metered ones, without having to feed the meter. At 38 cents per minute, that same three-mile trip with Car2Go can be as cheap as $7.

Like Uber, Car2Go spokesperson Katie Stafford wouldn't talk specifics, but confirms in an email that "people in D.C. have been extremely receptive of car2go."

•       •       •       •       •

D.C.'s cab industry, as I've mentioned, is unique. The large number of independent cab drivers here means we have tons of cabs, but it also means the quality and reliability of the fleet varies dramatically. There are plenty of friendly, competent drivers, but the city also has more than its fair share of cabbies who operate dirty, rundown vehicles with broken seat belts and who don't seem to know their way around as well as they should. Competition for fares is also that much more intense, which leads to cabs clustering around high density areas and largely ingnoring whole swaths of the city, a market failure that services like Uber are designed to address.

So it's true that D.C. residents have been primed more than most to seek out taxi alternatives. A survey of taxi riders by Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, the author of the council's taxi modernization bill, found that 69 percent of respondents feel that taxi service in the District is worse than in other American cities.

Still, taxi alternatives are coming, if they're not there already, to most major U.S. cities, and it's not hard to see that drivers who resist adapting to compete with them are risking their own livelihoods. Cities with taxis that are hugely expensive, like Boston, are prime targets for companies like Car2Go. New York City long ago figured out how to ensure a world-class taxi fleet, but it's also in the midst of a massive bicycle infrastructure expansion soon to be anchored by its own bike-sharing service. (Some recent handwringing over the purportedly high cost of New York's bike-share totally missed the point of the service: bike-share isn't designed to appeal to weekend cruisers looking to take an hours-long joy ride, it's aimed at locals and tourists alike who will use the bikes as a replacement for quick cab and subway rides). In San Francisco, birthplace of Uber, some entrepreneurs have recently launched an app that lets users connect with citizen drivers, a kind of mash-up of Uber and slugging.

Talk to cab drivers in D.C., and they're much less concerned about all the competition than they are in the worry that the D.C. Council has designs on implementing a medallion system. "I admire the folks out there on bikes, more power to them," says John Bugg, a longtime D.C. cab driver who's become something of a spokesman for the DC Professional Taxicab Drivers Association. "Let it rain, let there be a blackout, people will need their cabs," Bugg says.

He's got a point. "Multi-modal" has become the buzzword of the decade among transportation planners for a reason: The more options people have at their disposal, the more likely they are to take fewer trips in a personal vehicle. And traditional taxis can and should continue to be one of those options. But with so many innovative alternatives increasingly available, the question for cities where the cab industry has been slow to adapt is, is it already too late?

Top image: corepics/

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  2. Coronavirus

    How to Make People Stay Home

    To help flatten the curve in the Covid-19 outbreak, officials at all levels of government are asking people to stay home. Here's what’s worked, and what hasn't.

  3. Coronavirus

    Black Businesses Left Behind in Covid-19 Relief

    The latest U.S. coronavirus aid package promises a partial and uneven economic recovery that leaves behind the African American community.

  4. photo: Former HUD secretary Julián Castro

    How to Head Off a Coronavirus Housing Crisis

    Former HUD secretary and presidential candidate Julián Castro has ideas for state and federal leaders on protecting vulnerable renters from a housing disaster.

  5. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.