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Posts Tagged ‘Taxi’

Today’s lesson in political economy: the looming battle over Washington’s cab market.

Three members of DC’s City Council (Marion Barry, Harry Thomas, Jr., and Michael Brown) want to require every taxi to have a medallion. The number of medallions would be much smaller than the number of cabs on the streets today.

As I noted a few months ago, this proposal would harm consumers more than it would help drivers. With fewer cabs on the road, it would be harder for passengers to find a ride and easier for drivers to turn down what they perceive as undesirable fares. If medallion prices rise, it may also make it easier for taxi drivers to lobby for higher fares in the future. All of that adds up to fewer cab trips.

The sponsors reportedly have close ties to some taxi drivers, so it isn’t surprising they favor drivers over consumers. What is interesting, however, is how they would favor some drivers over others.

The favored? Drivers with two or three decades on the road who are DC residents. In short, long-time incumbents who can vote.

The disfavored? Drivers with less experience or who live outside the district. In short, entrants and those who can’t vote.

This favoritism shows up in several ways in the proposed legislation:

  • Medallion prices. Under the proposal, initial medallion prices would vary by a factor of ten. A DC resident with 30+ years experience could buy a Class 1 unrestricted medallion for $500. A DC resident with 20+ years experience would pay $1,000. A non-resident with 20+ years would pay $4,000. Other qualifying drivers – if I am reading the proposal right, these would be DC residents who have filed DC income taxes for at least five years – would pay $5,000.
  • Right to purchase medallions. DC residents have priority over non-residents for most medallions, and priority further depends on seniority.
  • Property rights. Under the proposal, most medallions would become the buyer’s property and could be assigned or sold in the future. That means the driver would get the benefit of any price appreciation in the future. But that isn’t true for one category: Class 5 medallions that would be created for non-resident drivers who don’t get Class 1 through 4 medallions. Those medallions are not property and cannot be transferred; once the driver stops using them, they would be gone, and the number of taxis would decline further. (By the way, the price of Class 5 medallions is not specified in the legislation; instead it is left up to the Taxicab Commission.)

Bottom line: The proposal is a classic illustration of how the regulatory system might be used to favor (a) an organized group (taxi drivers) over a non-organized one (consumers), (b) incumbents over entrants, and (c) residents over non-residents.

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I love taxi medallions.

As an example for my microeconomics students, not as policy.

Just last week, I used New York City’s medallion system to show how an entry barrier — the requirement that each yellow taxi have one of a limited number of medallions — could create profits in an otherwise viciously competitive industry.

How much profit? Well, according to the most recent data from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission medallions for independent cab drivers traded at between $610,000 and $620,000 in October. If you figure 8% as a reasonable rate of return of this asset, that translates into almost $50,000 in pure profit each year from driving a cab, thanks to the entry barrier.

Good exam question: Who gets that profit? Hint: It isn’t the cab driver, who either has to lay out $600,000+ for a medallion or lease one at perhaps $50,000 per year.

Of course that profit comes at the expense of taxi riders, who face a double whammy: they pay more for the cab rides they can get, and they end up taking fewer cab rides (the latter effect is known as a deadweight loss – society loses the benefit of the cab rides that would have happened without the medallion system).

Given that background, I was horrified to learn from Matt Yglesias that taxi drivers in Washington DC are lobbying Vincent Gray, the city’s new mayor, to introduce a medallion system. Yglesias quotes Alan Suderman of the Washington City Paper thusly:

Derje Mamo, a taxi driver who helped run transportation for the mayor-elect’s campaign, said cabdrivers already are pushing Gray to reshape the Taxicab Commission and allow for the creation of a medallion system. A medallion or certification system would limit the number of cabs operating in the city. Proponents of such a system argue that too many taxis are flooding D.C. streets. ‘He’s got one year, that’s it,’ Mamo said.”

As Yglesias notes, this is a really bad idea. There’s no reason to believe that there are too many cabs on DC streets (except, of course, from the view of cab drivers who hate the competition), and in some neighborhoods there may well be too few. A more plausible concern, as some commenters on his blog note (but I can’t link to because of some glitch), is that current taxi fares might be a bit too low. Taxi fares are still a new thing in DC–until 2008 the city had a zone system that many passengers, myself included, found bewildering–and it may be that the initial levels weren’t set exactly right. If Mayor Gray wants to do something for the cabdrivers, he should ask the Taxicab Commission to ponder whether some upward tweaks to fares might induce some extra supply that passengers would value.

Update: For further discussion, please see this later post.

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