This article was adapted from a paper produced as part of the Future of Work Project, an inquiry supported by the Open Society Foundations.
Thirty-one years ago, I drove for Falls Church Yellow Cab in Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. I had a history degree and radical politics, and taxi driving advertised itself as a way you could “work the hours you want and make the money you need.” The deal was straightforward: I paid “stand dues”—a fee that drivers pay to affiliate with a company or lease a company-owned car—and footed the gas bill. Anything I earned after that was mine. On a good day, I grossed $160; minus stand dues and gas, I might clear $100 in cash after twelve to fourteen hours. That was a living wage in 1983.
“Hacking” is slang for driving a cab, and it involves plenty of skill: reading maps, knowing back roads and shortcuts, anticipating where future calls will pop up and, of course, driving. In my case, that meant maneuvering a hulking Plymouth Fury with Slinkys for suspension and a bottomless pit for a gas tank.
I enjoyed the chesslike strategy of bidding on trips, anticipating when and where there would be business. I kept within a few feet of my cab at all times to stay in line on the stands or listen to the dispatch radio. I learned from industry veterans that one of the most important bidding skills was “long hooding”—essentially, fudging your car’s location by a few blocks or miles to make the dispatcher think you were closer to the potential passenger. There was a sense of accomplishment when I hacked a series of short trips (referred to as “jerks”) during slow periods. My goal: keep the meter running.
Except for some modest variations and technological improvements, the system I drove under is still in effect today. Virginia law treats taxis as a public utility, and the state is divided into over 95 counties, each with its own code. This has resulted in some important differences between jurisdictions. In Alexandria, over 90 percent of the cabs are owned by their drivers, while in nearby Arlington, the figure is just over half. But in either case, a car and its driver are affiliated with a single company.
In Northern Virginia, the number of taxis in each jurisdiction is capped by local law; in practice, one company controls a majority of cabs in any given area. So in Arlington, for example, 455 out of the district’s 787 cabs are affiliated with Neil Nichols’s Red Top/Arlington Yellow Cab company. All jurisdictions have rules prohibiting drivers from switching companies. By limiting the total number of cabs, the system guarantees work and promises drivers a living wage. Until the entry of app-based services, cab companies operated with all of their allocated “slots” either sold or rented to drivers.