D.c. Taxi Drivers Go Out On Strike

12-hour Work Stoppage Protests Mayor's Plan For Cool Cabs, Polite Cabbies

April 23, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Peter Wegman managed to make it all the way from Amsterdam to the nation's capital yesterday without a bit of trouble -- at least not until he tried to hail a cab.

"It seems to be impossible to get anywhere in this city," he said, helplessly swinging two arms full of luggage in a downtown street. "Is this how it goes in America?"

Not quite. This is just how it goes in the nation's capital, where more than 6,500 District cabdrivers went on strike.

From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., cabbies threw their cars into park to protest regulations by Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. that they said were so onerous, they could not stay in business. Among the new rules: air-conditioned cabs and courtesy training for drivers.

The city's drivers were so outraged by this, they let the power elite find their own rides. For one day, the cabbies would not be called rude, their cars would not be deemed smelly, and their driving would not be ruled insane.

The plan threatened to leave thousands stranded.

After all, people call Washington a walking city, but they don't mean it literally -- the district is a sprawling map of confusing streets that change names and end in confusing traffic circles.

Metro subways don't go everywhere, and even locals admit they sometimes can't figure out how to use the bus.

But this is America, as Wegman noted. Before he could set his bags down, an independent limousine driver approached the exhausted Dutchman and struck up a little international business deal.

"I'll take you where you want to go," said driver George Lipschomb, standing beside his 1988 Lincoln Town Car. "Of course, it's going to cost you."

The two settled on a $10 fare for what would otherwise be a $5.50 ride. Lipschomb had gone easy on this passenger: Earlier in the day, he said, he charged $20 for a five-minute car ride.

"I'm supplementing my income," he said. "Maybe it's against the law, but I'm pretty sure the police are looking the other way."

This was the scene across the city, as private drivers turned their cars into gypsy cabs and some suburban taxis picked up and dropped off the same fares within the city limits. Both are forbidden under district law.

Travelers in a long line outside Union Station were paying more money the more desperate they got -- particularly since a stray cab would come by only once every half-hour.

"These limos are just making up their prices," said Fritz Amare, the taxi dispatcher at the train station. "This kind of thing isn't usually allowed, but there are new rules today."

For their part, cabbies assure their patrons, they are sorry.

"We had to do what we had to do," said Nathan Price, a district cabdriver for the past 26 years and the head of the D.C. Professional Taxi Cab Drivers Association, which organized the boycott. "We were about to be pushed out of business by the mayor's plan."

The plan calls for all cabs in the more than 7,000-car district fleet to be air-conditioned by next month. By next year, any cab more than 6 years old must be retired.

The fare system, now based on fixed rates in a city divided into taxi zones, would switch to meters. And all cabbies would be required to participate in training that includes courtesy lessons.

Still, some cabs were cruising the streets. A district cabbie at Union Station said he had to make a living -- even though striking cabdrivers sent "spotters" to 30 points in the city to write down the tags of drivers like him.

For Wegman, the broader points of the democracy of hacking were unimportant. All that mattered was to find something with four wheels and a driver.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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