Big Yellow Taxi? Not in Washington DC

Out of America: The city's notoriously laissez-faire taxi industry faces regulation of fares and routes at last. But how should they be painted?

Related Topics

Washington DC is trying to overhaul its taxi industry. But in this weird, wonderful and anarchic universe, nothing is ever simple – not even what colour they should be.

London's (mostly) black taxis, with their distinctive shape, are as much a part of the city's brand as red buses, Big Ben or the Changing of the Guard. Ditto New York, whose yellow cabs long since achieved movie-star status. But what about the capital of the most powerful country on earth?

Well, yes, we do have black cabs. We have yellow cabs, too. For that matter, we have green ones, red ones, beige ones, blue ones. Indeed, if you're fussy about what colour taxi you travel in, on Washington's streets there's just the one for you. We have cab companies and solo operators. We have dirty cabs, not-so-dirty cabs, even a few clean ones. We have old cabs, not-so-old ones and even a few new ones.

We have some cabs on which a lit light means "for hire", and others that turn out to be either already taken or not available. One way or another, anything goes. Washington's taxis are an urban jungle on wheels, where practically anyone can jump into the business.

When it comes to taxis, Washington and New York are polar opposites. The city that symbolises capitalism and free enterprise runs its taxi industry like a medieval guild. New York may be about 14 times more populous than Washington, but it has only twice as many cabs. The number is limited by a strict system of medallions – an aluminium badge or licence on the front – of which roughly 13,000 have been issued, and which sell for up to $1m apiece.

Washington has no medallion system, with the result that it probably has more cabs per inhabitant than any major city in the country, 12 per 1,000 residents compared with 2.6 in Chicago, 1.7 in New York, and 3.1 in London. It's not quite Moscow, where you can hitch a paid ride in any private car. But in the American capital, vilified as a symbol of bureaucracy and regulation run amok, pretty well anything goes when it comes to cabs.

Caveat emptor should be the industry's unofficial motto. Needless to say, cabbies here aren't subject to anything like the Knowledge, the exam every driver of a black London cab must pass. Even a reasonable knowledge of English isn't a requirement. And if they don't want to take you somewhere in "the District" – even though by law they're bound to – too bad.

For whatever reason, it's always been like that. Washington may be a seat of empire, home to a government that has sent men to the moon. But amazingly, until only four years ago, taxis here didn't even have meters. Instead, the city was divided into roughly concentric zones, with fares depending on how many zones were crossed during a journey.

With a decent map, the system might have been comprehensible. But the only help you usually got was a skewed rendition of Washington and its environs, stuck with yellowing tape to the back of the driver's seat. North wasn't even north, but pointed to the northwest. The whole thing might have been a 15th-century projection of the globe, about as easy to read as a darts board in a pub where the lights were out. The only thing that stopped the system being a guaranteed rip-off was that many drivers didn't understand it either.

But change, finally, seems to be at hand, if for no other reason than embarrassment on the part of the city fathers. With its rich history, its wonderful museums and ever-improving restaurant and entertainment scene, the once sleepy Washington is turning into a truly world-class city. But one amenity is missing: a world-class cab service. Which matters. As Vincent Gray, the mayor, puts it: "If at the airport or hotel a visitor finds himself getting into a hunk of junk, it can leave an indelible impression."

Last July, the city council took an important first step, approving a Bill under which all taxis would have a meter system that accepted credit cards and provided automatic receipts, and be equipped with a device that allowed passengers to pay direct in the back seat. In service, the cabs would be tracked by a GPS system. Cabs won't be more than seven years old; more of them will be disabled-accessible, while the overall size of the fleet could be limited too (whisper it, but even in Washington, medallions are on the way). Finally, there will be more inspectors. The new rules won't fully be in force until 2020, but unsurprisingly, the drivers and companies are up in arms, complaining they are being turned into "share-croppers".

However, one big question remains unanswered – whether to have a New York-style colour scheme. Earlier this month, Gray came up with four proposals, but all were comprehensively panned. Couldn't a place with as much design talent as Washington, it was asked, come up with better?

Part of the problem were the colours themselves. One, in red, white and blue, looked like a cross between the liveries of the city's police cars and its professional sports teams. Two others featured tacky combinations of white, yellow and green – giving them the feel of a tropical cocktail. The fourth, perhaps the best of the bunch, was half-red, half-white. But like the other three, its colour bands sloped diagonally down from back to front, like Formula One racing cars. None added anything very world-class to Brand Washington.

In terms of gravitas, a single colour would probably be best – but it might make the taxi hard to distinguish from ordinary cars (except if the colour was yellow, but New York already has yellow ones). Almost certainly, it's back to the drawing board. As I said, when it comes to Washington and taxis, nothing is ever simple.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home