Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. Taxicab Commission imagines 300 wheelchair-accessible cabs in 2012

January 31, 2012 - 08:54 AM
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Our new carriages for the disabled. (Photo: John Hendel)

Washington, D.C. has tested just 20 wheelchair-accessible taxicabs in the last two years, part of a subsidized pilot program run by Yellow Cab and Royal Cab, but prepare to see more in the next few months. Yesterday afternoon D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman Ron Linton told the D.C. Council he hopes to have 300 wheelchair-accessible taxis on the road by the end of the year. The upgrades would conceivably be paid for and go to serve two prominent D.C. entities — WMATA and D.C. Public Schools.

“We believe there is a way to contract with taxicabs to save them millions of dollars," Commissioner Linton told Council Chairman Kwame Brown in the Wilson Building yesterday as part of a drawn-out and contentious exchange in which Brown sought to shame Linton for not doing more to promote wheelchair-accessible cabs.

Linton’s motive is as focused on business as on equality, as our transit system and public school system would serve as taxicab industry clients. In the case of WMATA's $100-million MetroAccess transport for riders with disabilities, contractor Battle Transportation will be ending its service on Feb. 10 for what WAMU called "economic reasons," and Linton raised this as a possible entry point into that transportation market. According to WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel, Battle has provide for about 35 of MV Transportation's 300+ MetroAccess routes but says those will be "seamlessly absorbed into MV's operation" when Battle leaves. Meanwhile, our public schools spend $92 million to transport 3,500 special needs students, a cost the Council and Mayor Vince Gray have sought to cut. Could taxis be the answer to these dual transportation challenges?

Linton said that D.C.’s taxis could save WMATA about $10 million a year in their services, and he has already met with Metro General Manager Richard Sarles to discuss the possibility. First would come a 90-day study on how to integrate D.C. taxicabs into these transport systems for those with special needs, and then, potentially, big-deal contracts that would positions taxis to move whole new populations of District residents.

Chocolate strawberries
An accessible taxicab. (Photo: John Hendel)

WMATA's Stessel didn't offer much in the way of details on any potential collaboration, noting Battle's small role, but stressed WMATA's receptive nature. "Metro is open to discussing more collaboration with the District to serve people with special needs within the community," Stessel told me via e-mail. I've requested confirmation and details from D.C. Public Schools and will let you know if I hear anything.

Linton and Brown spoke as part of a D.C. Council hearing held to consider two different bills that would overhaul the District’s taxicab industry, one seeking to "modernize" the cabs with credit card readers, GPS capabilities, a uniform cab color, and better training. The second bill, sponsored by Chairman Brown, would mandate 10% of all taxicabs be made wheelchair-accessible. Brown held a press event with disability advocates before the morning’s hearings to trumpet the bill. The chairman questioned Linton in a rather pointed, pushy fashion focused exclusively on his championed issue.

Why not, Brown asked, make every new taxicab vehicle accessible for those with disabilities? The inability to hail a cab, according to our chairman, is "un-American." One obstacle may be the reality that each of the 20 accessible minivans now on the streets costs well over $30,000 and is heavily subsidized. Linton said multiple times that he supports increasing the number of accessible cabs — 300 is no small number, after all — but questions the wisdom of rushing forward with mandates and suggested they all study the “economic impact” of such a bold legislative move first.

“When we hear 'studies,' we know what that means," Brown remarked. "It’s going on the shelf."

Linton pointed to the possibility of 300 new accessible taxicabs, which would be on the streets this year. 300, up from 20, and arranged not through Taxicab Commission funds but through contracts coordinated with WMATA and the D.C. Public Schools. Brown seemed not to worry so much about that, however, and simply sought ways to grandstand and strike down Linton’s positions despite declaring his "respect" for the commissioner (“It’s mutual,” Linton replied). Brown painted a picture of all the vaunted improvements, the credit cards, the GPS, and so on, but said that it’s only for a select group of District residents and leaves out those residents with disabilities. "That’s not equality," Brown declared. During the exchanges, he called out WMATA’s MetroAccess service as "awful," a fair enough observation. Brown attempted to frame his aggressive questioning as part of his leadership: “I have a plan to get things done. Some people don’t like it.”

Would 300 wheelchair-accessible taxicabs even be possible by the year’s end? Some councilmembers expressed skepticism. Only 20 such cabs have emerged in the last two years, after all.

"It’s possible," Linton insisted. "It depends."

Near the end of their conversation, Brown did score a telling and very legitimate point against Linton and the Taxicab Commission’s efforts or lack thereof in expanding our taxicabs’ accessibility options.

"My number-one objective is to have a solid plan that works that puts more wheelchair-accessible cabs on the road," Brown told Linton after several minutes of exchange. He asked Linton what his specific objections were to the accessibility bill.

“I don’t think it’s correct to start out with a 10% mandate,” Linton replied.

Brown pushed Linton further. Had the taxicab commissioner had any chats with disability advocates or with representatives from the ADA?

"Personally?" Linton said. "None. Not in the last few months."

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