Washington, D.C., is the Cab Capital of America, and D.C. cab drivers are the nation's best. San Francisco could learn a few things from how D.C. does cabs, and George W. Bush would do well to court city cab drivers.
Unlike most cities, D.C. sets its fares by zones, so that a 7-minute ride for one from the National Press Club to the Senate side of the Capitol costs $5, or $6 during rush hour. Cabs are plentiful, and the drivers are exceedingly polite, not only to their fares, but also to other drivers. They frequently make way for other cabs. Even when they hang a U-turn in the middle of a block, they do it slowly, courteously and without cutting off other cars. D.C. drivers know the city, the buildings and the streets.
Some visitors to the Capitol during the inauguration might disagree with my assessment if they're unaware that out-of-town taxis flooded the city over inaugural weekend. I discovered this after a taxi picked up four of us by a Metro station, drove us in the wrong direction and, $12 later, let us off where he picked us up -- wrongly claiming that taxis could not go to the American History Museum, where GOP Rep. David Dreier was holding a California bash. (Many savvy D.C. drivers stayed home inauguration night because barricades and crowds meant that they could only earn $6.50 for a half-hour ride under the fare zoning system. The city would do well to allow drivers to raise the prices during inaugural weekend.)
Hail a cab in D.C. and odds are decent that your driver will be an immigrant from Africa, maybe from Ethiopia or Ghana, who enunciates perfectly. Native or immigrant, cabbies tend to be highly religious and frequently mention their Christian faith. At night, many taxi radios are tuned to Christian talk shows that discuss Scripture.
During the day, it is not unusual to jump into a cab tuned to National Public Radio or C-SPAN radio. The drivers are well-informed, if not well plugged in. Two asked me if I thought Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft would be confirmed -- as if the Senate might not accept him at a time when the most partisan Democrat readily admitted that defeating Ashcroft was a lost cause.
D.C. cabbies loved President Clinton. During Clinton's Monica Lewinsky woes, many were quick to tell passengers that they forgave Clinton's indiscretions.
They do not love Bush. Which is why Bush should make it a priority -- by combining good policy and good politics -- to win over D.C. cabbies and turn them into his own goodwill fleet.
Three steps could help.
One: Bush could start by using foreign aid dollars to fund projects that extend life in impoverished African countries. Building water purification projects and funding to give malnourished children vitamin A could go a long way to win over the immigrant community -- and save lives.
Two: Give interviews to local Christian and NPR stations, and speak to drivers hack to hack. Bush could explain to drivers how his energy policies would affect gasoline prices and help cab drivers.
Last but not least: T ear down the barricades ordered by President Clinton that block Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, so that cars can drive in front of America's most famous residence. The GOP platform promised as much, and the move would let America know that this administration will be more open to citizens and cabbies.
After arriving here, visitors get to know Washington through cab drivers. Lucky for it, Washington's drivers do a fine job as ambassadors to this jewel of a city. President Bush should court this constituency, so that it speaks well for him. He would be well served by a hack-to-hack partnership.