Catch a taxi in Chicago, Miami or New York City and the routine is the same: You cruise along, and the dollars and cents rack up on the meter based on time and distance.
But it's different in Washington, D.C. — at least it was until May 1. People taking cabs there wouldn't find a meter because fares were calculated according to a system that broke the city up into geographic zones. Now, D.C. cabbies are required to have fare-based meters in their cars.
Seemingly everybody familiar with the rules of riding in a cab in the District of Columbia had an opinion about them.
Mike Mills, editor of the Washington Business Journal, compares New York's taxi system to Johann Sebastian Bach: Elegant. Symmetrical. Mathematically precise.
"But D.C. is kind of more like Charlie Parker," says Mills, referencing the late jazz saxophonist famous for his improvisational style.
New York is laid out rationally: There's uptown and there's downtown. D.C.'s street plan — designed in 1791 by Pierre L'Enfant — uses "circles with radiuses that overlay a grid system," Mills says. The taxi zones were created in 1933 using major streets as boundaries. But unless riders were intimately familiar with the city, they often had no idea whether their trip was within one zone or crossed over into another — adding to the fare.
So the system left riders to "figure out how much they owe, and the driver often has a different idea" of what the final tab should be when the ride ends, Mills says.
Cabbie William Riley scoffed at that interpretation of D.C.'s taxi system. He has no problem deciphering the zones and calculating a fare.
"It's real simple," says Riley, who's been driving a cab in D.C. for 40 years.
But for visitors, it's not so easy to decode the zone plan.
Susie Wallace, who recently visited from Texas, hopped in a cab to Georgetown. She scanned a map of the city's taxi zones to see if she could make out her route. "This is a hard map," Wallace said. "I don't get it."
Neither did her husband.
"I know that my husband left and went to the Capitol and it was $10. And coming back it was $12. So I don't know," Wallace said.
For a few more weeks, at least, she and other riders will have to play taxi roulette: D.C.'s mayor, Adrian Fenty, has given drivers until June 1 before cab drivers who haven't installed meters are slapped with $1,000 fines.