David Alpert has a good overview of three taxi hailing apps that you can now use in DC. I've only used one (Uber) but did recently create an account for MyTaxi. Since I almost never hire rides, I haven't used the latter yet. For the purpose of this post, everything I say about Uber refers only to its taxi service, not its Towncar/SUV service.

In my opinion, the DC taxi industry isn't just bad, it's downright terrible. The economist in me sees the obvious problems: cabbies don't have any incentive to provide good service because people don't really get a choice in which cab they hail, nor can they usually hire the same drivers more than once.

Adding to that, the taxi regulator (DCTC) is extremely weak and cab drivers know they can get away with a lot of abusive behavior (refusing destinations, inefficient routes, discrimination, etc.). And traffic enforcement is weak, so cab drivers also know they can drive like dangerous maniacs and pick up more fares as a result.

(from thisisbossi on Flickr)

David's post is about how these apps change the user experience. I think there's even more to it than that.

Uber, for example, is a new de facto regulator of the taxi drivers that use the service. If I have a bad taxi experience, I can file a complaint with DCTC (and it probably won't go anywhere) and I can file a complaint with Uber (and it's much more likely I'll have the situation resolved or at least get an apology).

If a taxi driver working for Uber provides poor service to enough customers, he could get kicked out. If Uber is generating a decent amount of business for him, this could be incentive enough to provide good service to the passengers who hire him through the app.

The other issue that the technology addresses is anonymity. For a driver that finds passengers via street hails, providing bad service to one customer isn't going to stop another customer from hailing him a few blocks down the street. With Uber, customers get to rate their drivers after each ride, so the driver has the same incentive to earn a good rating on Uber as any business has to earn a good rating on Yelp.

In order for Uber to have enough muscle, they need to generate enough business for cabbies so that the drivers have no choice but to use the service if they want to make any money. If Uber isn't pushing enough business to them, drivers might not care if they get kicked out, because they can always go back to using street hails for business, or sign up with a competing app.

It's too early to tell if any of these apps will make a dent in the DC taxi industry, let alone fix any of the problems. That said, I'm at least optimistic for the time being.

Parking Illegality

Ashley Halsey III has an article about the millions of dollars that were generated in DC last year via parking tickets. Here's the money quote:
Not counting Sundays and holidays, AAA calculated that the District issues an average of about 7.3 parking tickets each minute.
This is incredible, not because of how many tickets are being issued, but because it shows just how rampant illegal parking is. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that for every one person who gets a ticket for illegal parking, dozens more get away with it. 


(from thisisbossi on Flickr) 

A lot of the violations are from people who simply don't pay their meter (which is what it is), but another chunk come from people who park illegally because there isn't a legal space on the street at their destination. So instead of finding a legal space, they double park, park in bike lanes, loading zones, handicap spaces, tow-away zones, or wherever else they can squeeze their car, regardless of whether it's legal. Sometimes they throw on their hazard flashers, as if that makes it OK (though I've never seen that stop a parking enforcement officer from issuing a ticket). 

To some, the problem is too few parking spaces. This is a stretch. DC has plenty of parking spaces, but many of them are in garages. And garages often charge market prices, and people don't want to pay market prices when a much less expensive option is out there. Sometimes garages are a few blocks or more from people's destinations. Often the available legal spaces, even on the street, aren't right next to where people are going.


In this sense, what they really mean is that there aren't enough free or under-priced spaces directly in front of their destinations. What's the solution then? More government subsidized municipal parking lots? Lax enforcement that lets people double and triple park wherever they want without consequence?


Government could build more parking spaces, but the simple fact that those spaces won't all be right in front of where everyone wants to go all the time, illegal parking will continue.

The reason this is such an incredibly difficult issue is because illegal parking is enough of a "victimless crime" that any punishment greater than a monetary fine seems inappropriately harsh. But at the same time, the fines and current enforcement system clearly aren't enough to actually deter people from doing it. The result is that the city rakes in a ton of money, and it's extremely easy for people to cry "extortion" or "scam" when the numbers come out and show that parking enforcement generated $92 million in revenue. 

As Martin Austermuhle writes, nothing that the city will do can ever make everybody happy:
Townsend complains that D.C. charges too much for parking and enforces too aggressively, but at the same time motorists aimlessly circle the block looking for parking. In AAA's ideal world, parking would be (all but) free and enforcement (all but) nonexistent, which would obviously resolve the city's on-street parking woes by...allowing drivers to park all day and without paying a dime?
Of course, there is a world where exactly this exists:  the suburbs. DC has plenty of suburbs in all directions where parking is like heaven (though driving to that parking can be like hell). The great thing about DC is that it's a city and not the suburbs. The other great thing is that people have a choice between whether they want to live in the city and patronize businesses in the city or not. From what I can tell, despite many of the threats and much of the outspokenness, DC's central neighborhoods are doing just fine.
The other day I posted a silly thought experiment about using a van for personal storage and keeping it parked on the street. The analogy was flimsy and people pointed out problems with it (I ignored the costs of registration and insurance, I ignored the fact that the van might get targeted by thieves, and generally speaking, it's kind of a pain for just storing a bunch of junk).

For all those reasons, I was never actually considering doing it; but from the comments it sounds like some people already are (in DC and elsewhere). In any case, now that the conversation is going, I can get a little more serious about the issue.

(from thisisbossi on Flickr) 

We know what the market price for parking is in DC, and it's not the same in every neighborhood. In some areas, like around Dupont Circle, a monthly pass for a garage might cost as much as $250 per month. At $35 per year, street parking is offered at roughly a 99% discount to the market price for that area. It seems obvious why so many people would opt for a Residential Parking Permit and try to park on the street, even knowing that space is tight.

Let's forget about the hypothetical person who wants to use a parking space as a storage locker, but instead think of two people whose profiles actually seem common in DC...

Occasionally I joke on Twitter about my  plan to buy an old, beat-up Chevy Astro Van, park it on the street near my house, and use it exclusively as storage space. It sounds ridiculous, but it's actually an interesting thought experiment.

(from analog photo fun on Flickr)

People typically react by saying that doing this would be an abuse of the public parking system. Street parking is supposed to be for parking cars, not storing stuff they say. But in essence, street parking (public space) is used to store automobiles (privately owned things) for little to no cost (it would cost me $35 per year for a residential permit in my neighborhood). Using a van for storage would cost significantly less money than renting a space at one of those self storage warehouses, and it would be a lot more convenient.

Using an Astro Van as a storage locker would cause some pain for drivers in my neighborhood. Since I'd never move the van (except when legally necessary for street sweeping or an emergency no-parking permit holder) the space would never turn over. I'd single-handedly eliminate a valuable parking space from the neighborhood. And yet - doing so is perfectly legal and within my rights, under the current law.

Why is it that if I want to store a bunch of junk, I should have to go pay market price to do so? But if I want to store a car, the city will give me space, near my home, for practically free? That's really the central issue that's going to be at the heart of the many parking debates to come this summer. There will be finger pointing, there will be claims about what street parking should be for, and who street parking should be for and why it should be provided for next to no cost.

At the end of the day there will be a lot of unhappy people. But as I see it, this is an issue that will always have a lot of unhappy people. We're talking about a lucrative government subsidy, after all; and the people who like getting it aren't going to give it up without a fight.