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Are Taxi Meters That Bad? (maybe!)

Today's Washington Post reports that cab drivers in D.C. may strike over the mayor's new plan to replace our odd, zone-based taxi-fare system with one based on meters (i.e., the set-up you see in every other city). Matt Yglesias wants to know why, specifically, D.C. drivers—nearly all of them independent contractors—are so worried about the change. Like this guy:

Wegen Tadesse said the 900 members of the Ethiopian Ethio-American United Cab Owner Association plan to strike. "It's not just about the meters now," he said. "There are no guarantees for any of our jobs. The big companies are going to take over the business."

It's a good question. I've got two guesses. One is that, right now, it's very hard for big cab companies to enter the D.C. taxi market in the absence of meters, since there's no easy way for a large company to monitor its drivers under the zone system and see how much they're making. That has partly helped independent cab drivers flourish. Scrap the zone system, and suddenly the big boys will start moving in.

Another possible rationale comes from this old Post piece: "The concern about meters might seem an overreaction. But many see meters as the ultimate regulatory tool, the first in a series of bureaucratic demands that would strip them of their autonomy. Like many small-business owners, the drivers prefer less government meddling. They wonder, what's next? Limited work hours or caps on taxi licenses?" Fair enough.

OK, a third, more cynical explanation is that some drivers think they can rip off tourists more easily under the current, confusing zone system. But I don't know if that's the main concern here, and anyway, it seems like it's just as easy to hornswaggle unsuspecting tourist under a meter-based regime—just take the long, roundabout way to any destination, no? Any other theories?

--Bradford Plumer