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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

May can be a lovely month to visit the nation's capital. But tourists in Washington, D.C. may find cab drivers in a bad mood. The city's infamous taxi zone system has been confusing the tourists for a long time, but it's been long-favored by the cabbies.

NPR's Libby Lewis reports that today marks the beginning of the end of that zone system.

LIBBY LEWIS: Dante had his circles of hell. Washington, D.C. has its taxi zones. Catch a taxi in Chicago, Miami or New York, and you'll know what you're getting. You cruise along and see the dollars and cents rack up on the meter - time and distance. D.C.'s Mike Mills says New York's taxi system is like Johann Sebastian Bach. Elegant, symmetrical, mathematically precise.

Mr. MIKE MILLS (Editor, Washington Business Journal): But D.C. is kind of more like Charlie Parker.

LEWIS: There are rules, but everybody who knows them riffs on them. New York is laid out rationally. There's uptown, there's downtown.

Mr. MILLS: D.C. was laid out by a French guy, Pierre L'Enfant, so you've got these, you know, circles with radiuses that overlay a grid system.

LEWIS: And the taxi zones were laid over all that.

Mr. MILLS: And from that, they have to figure out how much they owe, and the driver often has a different idea.

LEWIS: Cabbie William Riley scoffed at that interpretation of D.C.'s taxi systems.

Mr. WILLIAM RILEY (Cab Driver): It's (unintelligible) zone. Follow me? If you go across the 2B's, 2C, 2A, that's a second zone. You understand? Okay, this third zone will be 11 dollars. That is real simple.

LEWIS: He's been driving cabs here for 40 years. For visitors, it's different.

(Soundbite of police whistle)

Ms. SUSIE WALLACE: Hi, there. We're going to Thomas Jefferson and M Street, the corner.

Mr. RILEY: Yes.

LEWIS: Susie Wallace is from East Texas, but she's here and she's headed to Georgetown. She scans a map of the city's taxi zones to see if she can make out her route. She looks at it like it's a hieroglyph.

Ms. WALLACE: M and Thomas Jefferson, the corner. So, I don't see them. It's a hard map.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALLACE: I don't get it.

LEWIS: She says her husband doesn't get it, either.

Ms. WALLACE: I know that my husband left the hotel and went up to the Capitol, and I think was $10. But then, coming back, it was $12. So I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEWIS: Well, that may not change for a while. The mayor's giving taxi drivers until June 1st before he starts hitting them with $1,000 fines for not having meters. So the month of May will be kind of like taxi roulette.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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