How many taxicabs should D.C. have? 6,191, regulators say

by Sean Riley


How many taxicabs should be allowed on the District’s streets?

It’s an age-old question that is at the heart of the D.C. taxi industry. The District, unlike most major U.S. cities, does not have a law capping the number of taxicabs. That has meant that the city has an unusually high number of taxis per capita compared to other cities, which is good for the riding public, but it also means that there are more cabs chasing a more or less finite number of rides, which is bad for drivers.

From time to time, drivers and owners have advocated for a legal cap on the number of cabs, whether through the imposition of a medallion system, whereby a finite number of licenses could be bought and sold, or through a quota, where licenses could not be sold by their holder but would only be issued by regulators if another license was no longer in use.

A taxi reform law that the D.C. Council passed in 2012 empowered the D.C. Taxicab Commission to establish “limits on the number of operator’s licenses or vehicle licenses” so long as it finds that those limits are “in the public interest and do not unduly and significantly harm the taxicab industry in the District.”

With little ado, the commission hired a consulting firm last year, paying $52,500 to study, among other things, a license quota. The firm, Taxi Research Partners, concluded that “6,141 licensed vehicles are required to provide a timely service to match demand” — with “timely service” meaning an average wait time of five minutes for a rider hailing a cab on the street.

Late last year, the Taxicab Commission translated that study — which made only brief mention of smartphone-hailed services, such as Uber and Lyft — into a package of regulations setting a quota of 6,191 (it’s unclear where the 50-license discrepancy comes from) and providing that the current inventory of about 6,300 taxi licenses be culled through attrition until the number of licenses falls 5 percent below the quota, at which time the commission would again issue taxi licenses.

The commission approved those regulations at its Dec. 10 meeting alongside more than a dozen other rules changes passed in the final meeting before Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Commission Chairman Ron M. Linton left office. Because the 2012 reform law required the council to review any quota, those regulations were transferred to the council on Dec. 22 for a 60-legislative-day review period.

While the regulations would not allow the purchase or sale of a license on the secondary market — meaning it would not, strictly speaking, create a medallion system — it is also unclear why any sort of quota is necessary.

The proposed council resolution states only that the quota regulations are “in the public interest of ensuring there is proper supply of taxicabs in operation to meet the consumer demands and do not unduly and significantly harm the taxicab industry in the District.” And, furthermore, there has been a de facto quota in place for several years, with the commission only issuing new licenses (or “H tags,” in reference to taxi license plate numbers that all start with “H”) to replace expiring licenses or to wheelchair-accessible cabs.

The move to set a hard quota has vexed at least one key player, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the committee overseeing transportation.

“I’m highly skeptical of this approach,” she said last week. “It’s almost like a back-door medallion system, and we’ve been opposed to that. We’ve always been more free market than that.” [MORE]