The not-so-glamorous side of DC: horrible cab drivers and our trip home from U Street

One thing you learn pretty quickly after moving here is that cabs are a valuable resource you will use frequently. Along the road you will also pick up horror stories of cabs never showing up and refusing to drive you home. If you are lucky like James and I, none of these experiences will happen to you soon after you move but have no fear, your time will come!

You might have noticed in my previous post a mention of a horrible cab ride after our night out on U Street. It all started out normally although we noticed that it was much harder to get a cab here than anywhere else we have been before. The first red flag came when a cab pulled over nearby but would not unlock its doors when a woman tried to get in. I immediately noticed that the front passenger window was down and the driver was attempting to speak with his potential passenger before letting her in.

The scene was very similar to another we witnessed on New Year’s when a driver in DuPont Circle pulled up to a waiting passenger in the same manner and refused to open the door. At the time we shrugged it off to an unruly passenger and thought nothing more. We had also heard of drivers refusing passengers based on their drop off point but we had never actually experienced it before. It didn’t really hit me that was what was going on until the next cab swooped by us with its window down in the same manner.

The backstory to all of this is that the cabs in and around DC follow a very strict set of regulations that governs where they can pick up passengers. In a nutshell, if a cab is licensed in DC all of its fares must originate from the city unless a passenger calls the cab company personally. The same is true for cabs registered in Virginia or Maryland. For example, if I am in the city and see a Red Top Cab (based in Arlington) and try to flag it down, legally it cannot stop for me. However, if I am in the city and call Red Top, they can send in a car designated only for me; but in a city full of cabs, how many people would really take this option? Who enforces such rules? According to one driver we have had, there is a sort of cab police that roam in and around the DMV looking out for such offenses and we hear that the fines can be pretty hefty if caught.

You would think that cabs wouldn’t mind this rule and that they would welcome long fares because it equals more money right? Well not so much, cabs actually seem to make more money the higher their turnover because base rates are so much more than anything added by additional passengers or mileage. As a result, you haves many drivers who will “vet” potential passengers to determine if it is profitable for them to drive. In theory this all makes since, but in practice it is totally illegal because a cab is not allowed to refuse a fare.

So this brings us back to our personal adventure at 3:00 AM on U Street. Something in my mind clicked as soon as I saw the second cab approach with its window rolled down. As we neared, his doors remained locked and from inside the car w heard him ask where we were going. Knowing his motives I told my friend to answer “down 14th Street” (after all, to get back into Virginia, you can travel down 14th until it becomes 395). Although confused, my friend repeated the phrase and the doors were unlocked. By this point, James too had realized what was happening and was quickly repeating the words “down 14th.” It wasn’t until we were all safely in the car and the door closed until we revealed where (down 14th) we were going.

Realizing that he had been outsmarted the cab driver went from grumbling to angry in the time it took for the red light to turn green. He immediately started pointing out that we had said 14th Street, to which we pointed out we had said “down 14th” as an indication of the direction to go. Needless to say, he was in no mood to reason and this exchange went on 3 or 4 times until the light changed and he started moving through the intersection. Just when we thought he was going to take us, he pulled over to the curb and demanded we get out of his cab; right in front of another group eagerly waiting for a ride as well. The three of us refused, planting our feet onto the floor and demanding we be taken to our destination.

At this point I’m sure we all looked like one big mess; the driver had not had time to roll up his window so the confused onlookers were walking up asking if we were getting out. As the driver said yes, we said no until we finally requested to be taken to McPherson Square so we could catch another cab more willing to drive us home. To this point I had understood his frustration, we had outsmarted him at his own game and were refusing to get out but I thought for sure this compromise would have us rolling in no time. When he still refused and demanded we get out it was all I could do to hold it together.

Thankfully the story from my friends came back to me once again and with as much composure as I could muster, I stated that we would be happy to get out once he gave us his personal cab number. Another side note: all cabs in the area by law are supposed to have a passenger bill of rights posted and clearly visible to the passenger. Part of this includes the individual cab number and complaint phone number for instances like these.

At first the driver seemed taken aback and continued demanding we get out of his car. When James and I started wondering aloud about the status of his passenger bill of rights and the fact it was torn to shreds and not readable, he backed off a bit but still refused to budge. It was not until we demanded his cab number two or three more times until he slowly pulled away and drove us to McPherson.

I am not really sure why, but once we arrived he refused to take our money. We offered to pay him twice before getting out because we all felt he deserved to be paid for the service he rendered, even if it wasn’t where we needed to go. By this point though it seemed that the anger had resided and maybe he felt a wee bit sorry, or maybe embarrassed that he was caught off guard on his territory playing his own game. We will never know for sure, but after offering him his fare plus tip (yes I was still going to tip- we are all working to make our living) he quietly refused and asked that we just get out.

Thankfully, it was a short two block walk until we found another cab driver willing to drive us into Virginia and as it turned out it would be his last fare of the night before heading home himself. Since this has happened, I have seen reports about the car service Über and how the DC city council is trying to put in place laws that will artificially keep its rates higher than cab rates to “protect” the drivers. After having such a hard time getting home though I really don’t see the point.

I have also continued to experience poor cab service. On two separate instances cabs have been dispatched to my apartment that never show, one causing me to arrive at the airport later than planned for a flight. Also at the airport, I experienced lazy drivers who said I had too much stuff (what can I say – you can accumulate a lot of fabulous souvenirs from Hawaii) although I was able to fit the baggage in the trunk of a Honda Civic. We also had a disgruntled cab driver jump from the driver’s seat and grumble at us after being told by the “airport cab service” to take us to our destination.

I write this story not to hate on cabs in the DMV, in reality 95% of the ones we have used have been nothing but friendly and great to talk to. Most will chat with you during the drive and some will even offer advice or directions if they feel they have something to offer. More often than not, we have found drivers who enjoy talking about their love for the area, the country they came from, and how long ago they moved.

I wrote this story out of the same reasons my friends warned me. It is bad enough when you are across town and taking the metro could add an hour to your trip home, but I hate to think of those situations that could be potentially dangerous when you might need a cab. I know that drivers turn down women walking by themselves or in small groups because I saw it happen just before our cab tried to dump us. I also know how long it took us to get that cab that night and can only imagine how many females end up walking home or alone in small groups for the same reason.

Hopefully these tidbits will help others stuck in the same position in the future or at least act as a sounding board for people like me who are fed up with the handful of crappy drivers we have roaming the city.

Have you had a similar experience? Please share it, especially if you can offer tips and tricks to getting out or around these frustrating situations.

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8 thoughts on “The not-so-glamorous side of DC: horrible cab drivers and our trip home from U Street

  1. Anyone in and out of the city from Arlington has been in that same crappy scenario. Props for how you handled it.

    Try using Uber. Probably a little more expensive, but split between a couple people it’s not bad and you won’t have to deal with any of that BS.

  2. Call me cynical but his refusal to accept fare was his weak attempt at a bribe to keep you from reporting him to the taxi commission. Plus after paying you then could get a receipt with his deets.

  3. Unfortunately, this also happens to people that are coming from DC, and live in DC. I have friends that live off of H Street or in Cap Hill, but cannot get cabs from Dupont or U Street. The only thing I ever use, is telling them that we’ll report them (basically same thing with you asking for the number), they shouldn’t be turning people down- unacceptable!

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