Uber may not be an ideal ride-hailing solution. But let's remember the unpredictable, shifty days of Washington's unmetered cabs.

The New Year is a time for reflecting on one's past, preparing for one's future, and moaning over one's ride-hailing charges in the here and now. As it happens, this year, Uber telegraphed its stratospheric surge-pricing plans so far in advance of New Year's Eve that it curbed demand for Uber services while attracting many more Uber drivers than usually appear on the road.

Sure, some passengers never got the memo. In the final balance, though, it may have been the Uber drivers who lost out. Despite the way the additional transparency measures "backfired" on Uber (and Lyft), critics are nevertheless still asking whether surge pricing is ethical. San Diego State University law professor Dan Eaton even wonders whether surge pricing on New Year's Eve compares to price gouging during a state of emergency.

So as a counter-balance to the conversation, here's one handy reminder of how darkly, how utterly poorly, taxi regimes sometimes behaved in the years before the emergence of real competition. The map below—an artifact known to and despised by any longtime D.C. resident—emblematizes what was once the iron rule of the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission: the dread "zone system."  

Note that the map looks nothing at all like any conventional map of the familiar D.C. diamond. Here, the north–south axis is tilted about 45 degrees, so as to make the District's three smooth borders fit inside a box-shaped graphic—and to render it completely unreadable. Per regulation, this map could be found hanging from the back seat of every D.C. taxi cab, where it did nobody any good at all. For passengers, the map was a nightmare, an off-kilter jumble of zones with no real correspondence to D.C. neighborhoods.

At a glance, it was hard to tell even roughly where one's destination might be located. The street borders were hard to read by day, impossible at night. Passengers simply needed to know them. The rules of the zone system were such that if a taxi driver crossed a zone border, the passenger owed a higher fare—even if the driver only nicked a border. And there were endless means and ways for a cab driving from one Zone 1 destination to another Zone 1 destination (for example) to skip briefly over into another zone. (Chances were, a route neared close enough to one of the five zones along the border.)

Sometimes, these diversions made sense, in terms of time or traffic flow. But passengers had to watch out constantly for a rogue zip across a zone. Tourists were totally at the mercy of drivers: Visitors had no realistic way of knowing whether they were being quoted a fair figure or not. Many informed residents had it just as bad, if not worse. Drivers refused fares to low-density neighborhoods all the time. Plenty of drivers refused to pick up black passengers altogether.

D.C. blogger James Barrett was one of the many residents who protested this state of affairs. He proposed a fairer map back in 2005, one that implemented the absurdly reasonable suggestion that a D.C. taxicab map feature a normal north–south alignment. Yet common sense never prevailed during the zone system's lifetime.

(Jim Barrett)

Former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty went to war to push D.C. cabs to ditch the zone system and adopt the time-and-distance meter standard in every other city. Six years ago, Fenty finally won. (But not at no cost: "Did Cab Drivers Oust Fenty?" asked a story for The Atlantic.) Victory notwithstanding, as recently as 2012, Josh Barro wrote a user's guide for navigating D.C.'s "notably and unusually unpleasant" taxicab system. (While I have always admired the largely independent nature of D.C.'s mostly immigrant taxi operators, all of Barro's complaints rang true for me. Some of them still do.)

In more recent years, Barro's guide to D.C. cabs could have been trimmed down to three words: "Take an Uber." In 2015, though, I'm not so sure. Drivers for the popular UberX service, hailing from far and wide, never seem to know where they're heading in the District. Once again, it's up to passengers to watch their drivers' route vigilantly—not because they're getting ripped off, but because they might never get where they're going. Plus, Uber keeps doing its damnedest to convince everyone that Uber is evil.

There are things that D.C. could do—things that any city could do—to tilt the map, as it were, back in riders' favor. In a post about reforms that would encourage more predictable pricing, Steve Randy Waldman describes two specific steps municipalities can take:

In particular, public policy should focus on encouraging “multihoming”, where drivers advertise availability over several competing platforms (Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, etc.) simultaneously. Municipalities might also consider requiring that ride-sharing platforms support standard APIs that would enable Kayak-like metaplatforms to emerge. Or municipalities might offer such applications to the public directly. As usual, the question here is not “regulation” vs. “deregulation,” but smart regulation to ensure a high-quality competitive marketplace. Fortunately, the right of municipalities to regulate transportation services is well established, so it should be straightforward for cities to impose conditions like nonexclusivity and publication of fares in standardized formats.

It goes without saying that District taxi drivers resisted Uber bitterly. One day, Uber will resist changes that encourage competition in the ride-hailing sector just as fiercely as it has resisted regulations that favor incumbent local taxi monopolies. How Felix Salmon sees Uber as a one-size-fits-all app for the entire world escapes me.

Uber could stand to be a whole lot less evil going forward. Still, I'll take this devil over the one I used to know—the D.C. zone system—any day of the week. Getting ride-hailing right this time around will be a boon to both drivers and passengers.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a woman on a SkyTrain car its way to the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia.
    Transportation

    In the City That Ride-Hailing Forgot, Change Is Coming

    Fears of congestion and a powerful taxi lobby have long kept ride-hailing apps out of this transit-friendly British Columbia city. That’s about to change.  

  2. A man rides an electric scooter in Los Angeles.
    Perspective

    Why Do City Dwellers Love to Hate Scooters?

    Electric scooters draw a lot of hate, but if supported well by cities, they have the potential to provide a widespread and beneficial mode of transportation.

  3. Life

    American Migration Patterns Should Terrify the GOP

    Millennial movers have hastened the growth of left-leaning metros in southern red states such as Texas, Arizona, and Georgia. It could be the biggest political story of the 2020s.

  4. A photo of a man along a walkway near a beach in Barcelona.
    Transportation

    The Life-Saving Benefits of Barcelona’s Car-Free ‘Superblocks’

    A new study estimates that a citywide plan to limit cars and capture nearly 70 percent of street space for bikes and pedestrians could save 667 lives per year.

  5. a map comparing the sizes of several cities
    Maps

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

×