Trusting the Local (but double-checking with GPS)

I live a ten-minute cab ride from the airport. I love it. Many a morning, I have stumbled down the porch steps in flip-flops and a business suit, carrying an overnight bag and high heels to make a flight in an hour’s time. Several weeks ago, I stepped into a cab and chirped my usual, “Good morning—National Airport, please!” and settled back into the seat, ready to finish applying eyeshadow. “Do you know how to get there?,” the driver asked.

4 minute read

September 30, 2007, 8:19 PM PDT

By Jess Zimbabwe @jzimbabwe

I live a ten-minute cab ride from the airport. I love it. Many a morning, I have stumbled down the porch steps in flip-flops and a business suit, carrying an overnight bag and high heels to make a flight in an hour's time. Several weeks ago, I stepped into a cab and chirped my usual, "Good morning-National Airport, please!" and settled back into the seat, ready to finish applying eyeshadow.

"Do you know how to get there?," the driver asked.

I froze, mouth agape. I was pre-coffee. I depend on cab drivers to know the way to every obscure bistro or late-night Fedex drop-off I am ever trying to get to. I don't own a car. The driving directions that I give to friends who offer me rides are all routes that I have learned from paying attention to cab drivers. How could a cabbie, or any D.C. area driver really, not know the simple route to National?  

Since I hadn't yet stammered out a response, the cab driver pulled over and consulted a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. The screen presented him with a series of colorful menu options:

  • destination: Virginia/Maryland/D.C.?
  • destination type: monument/hotel/museum/transportation/home/office?
  • transportation type: train station/airport/rental car agency?
  • airport: Dulles/National?

Finally, as the computer beeped to acknowledge that it had calculated our route, I managed, "How long have you been driving a cab?" (Answer: "Since yesterday.")  

As planners, we are trained to "trust the local," a lesson that recent proposals to outfit more D.C. cabs with GPS units ignores.

The current dispute addresses head-on the District's unique zone fare system, which inspires both harsh critics and adoring defenders. A recent Zogby poll found that, of 611 riders, 48 percent were in favor of replacing the zone system and 49 percent for keeping it. But among the zone system's critics are a high proportion of occasional and even regular visitors to the District, including the instigator of the current debate: Michigan Senator Carl Levin authored the legislative provision that will force D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to either order distance-and-time meters in cabs or issue, by next month, an executive order to leave the zone system intact. There is growing support for an alternative hybrid fare system--"zone-meters"--that combines a zone pricing system with GPS-generated records that re-assure travelers they are being accurately charged.

D.C.'s current taxi zone map  

There are several reasons to be skeptical of a new zone-meter system, even without adopting the conspiracy theories of New York City cab drivers who have recently organized a lawsuit to protest that City's Taxi and Limousine Commission ruling that all cars be outfitted with GPS units on the grounds that the system amounts to an invasion of drivers' privacy and that the GPS devices will expose the equivalent of trade secrets by disclosing the cabbies' driving patterns.  

First, the existing zone fare system works. For the 8.2 million residents of the D.C. metro area, the system provides efficient and cost-effective transportation. Hosts offer advice to their guests like, "hail a cab on the other side of U Street to save a zone's fare." Cabs are relatively easy to hail anywhere downtown and in most neighborhood centers. Oft-repeated trips come with repeated standard fares that can be easily predicted and quickly paid. A recent George Washington University School of Public Policy report on zone fares shows that longer cab rides are more cost effective than short ones, providing a measure of equity for low-income residents of outer neighborhoods like Anacostia.  

The real insult of the GPS units required for zone-metering is that it infantilizes drivers by encouraging them to absent-mindedly follow step-by-step instructions like, "bear right in 100 feet onto interstate three nine five." GPS is great when you're snowshoeing or trying to navigate in a strange place, but in taxis, it does away with the incentive for drivers to use their intellectual abilities to problem-solve and plan on a street-level scale. (I've stopped ordering cabs in advance over the internet because my home address shows up in the middle of my block on computerized maps. Since I actually live at the corner, if I'm carrying luggage, I'm forced to step out into the middle of the street and flail my arms like an idiot to signal a driver who, without confirming a house number, has pulled up to collect me where the GPS directed him--down the block.)  

The best cab drivers are better without GPS technology. Their business success depends on an innate ability to understand and predict an unbelievably complex system of where and when people will need cabs, where they will need to go, and the best routes for getting them there. The current zone fare system offers no incentive for taking a customer out of their way, unless that detour avoids construction, congestion, or a pack of tourists on Segways.   

What if, instead of foisting GPS technology on these city street specialists for the comfort and re-assurance of out of town visitors, we organized a way to respect their local knowledge? What if cab drivers were instead paid to provide expert testimony in transportation planning decisions? Senator Levin, D.C. officials, and both regular and occasional riders should treat as sacred the cabbies' knowledge of streets, traffic patterns, traveler demands, signal timing, and an uncanny ability to catch a stunning dewy dawn view of the Jefferson Memorial on the way to Dulles Airport.

Jess Zimbabwe

Jess Zimbabwe is the Principal of Plot Strategies. She served until recently for ten years as the founding Director of the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership—a partnership the National League of Cities (NLC) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The Center’s flagship program was the Daniel Rose Fellowship, which brought the mayors and senior leadership teams of 4 cities together for a year-long program of learning from land use experts, technical assistance, study tours, leadership development, and peer-to-peer exchange.

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