Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

More wheelchair-accessible taxicabs are coming to D.C.

January 25, 2012 - 04:13 PM
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Mary Cheh talks to the head of Yellow Cab D.C. (Photo: John Hendel)

Roy Spooner Sr. nodded and talked patiently with D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh this afternoon next to the Wilson Building. He's the general manager of Yellow Cab of D.C., she's the head of the D.C. transportation committee. Both have a thoughtful way about how they talk, standing outside in the chill air next to a 2010 Toyota Sienna taxicab. Cheh has talked a lot about taxicabs in recent months, from her technological overhaul of taxis planned for later this year (credit cards!) to her recent positions on Uber (she's a fan of options).

But today Cheh met with Spooner in order to learn more about and to see one of Spooner's wheelchair-accessible taxis, 20 of which are now out on D.C. streets as part of a program that started in February of 2010. Yellow Cab  and Royal Cab offer 10 each and have tested the $32,500 ADA-approved minivans to see about expanding our city's transportation options for people with disabilities. The program goes by the names "Roll D.C." as well as the drier "Wheelchair Accessible Taxicab Pilot" and we can thank the District, the Council of Governments, and the Transportation Planning Board for putting these first 20 vehicles into motion. The Federal Transit Administration provided a $1 million grant, which the D.C. Taxicab Commission matched with $200,000. Several others have helped in the last year, with the D.C. Office of Disabilities Rights sharing its advice and the Council of Governments providing professional training for the companies' drivers.

"They're not easy to acquire and they're not easy to maintain," Spooner told me about the unconventional taxicabs. "The biggest challenge was vehicle acquisition."

Spooner and Wendy Klancher, a transportation planner with the Washington Council of Governments, told me that the pilot developed out a longstanding demand for such wheelchair-accessible taxicabs and require significant coordination and treatment, such as dispatch services. But Klancher calls the 20-taxicab pilot a success and points to a response time of 30 minutes or less for trips that aren't booked ahead of time and a more-than-90% on-time response for those with appointments. The specially accessible taxicabs cost no more to the passenger than a traditional taxicab.

Spooner led me to the back of the Toyota Sienna minivan to show me the full size of the vehicle. I took a good look at all the space, equipped with straps and able to fit wheelcahirs and scooters easily as long as they're under 600 pounds and no more than 30 inches wide by 48 inches long.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

The minivans also have room to fit three to four other passengers up front, Spooner told me, as he gestured to the back of the vehicle, marked with the wheelchair-accessible symbol in multiple locations.

Service in the taxis has organically grown, without much in the way of marketing, in the last year and a half. Initially five of the vehicles were in service, with all 20 in service by March of 11, a month when the taxis provided 349 trips. The drivers themselves receive an extra two dollars from the program for carrying these passengers with disabilities, in part due to the 5 to 10 minutes of extra time that drivers experience with each ride. A part of that time comes from the safety precautions involved, such as with the straps. Spooner tells me the next step will likely be five more accessible cabs per company.

In the past, the D.C. taxicab industry has fallen prey to criticism regarding how drivers treat those with disabilities. The Equal Rights Center has reported that D.C. cab drivers discriminated against those with guide dogs 60% of the time and has testified to that effect before the Taxicab Commission. I mentioned this to Spooner, who told me he's familiar with the charge and that he and some others in the industry have raised the issue with their drivers. He calls it "a matter of awareness." Despite those past issues, this dispatch-ready service may be a promising option for those in wheelchairs who need to get around the District — especially given the mounting frustrations and tales of delay and confusion surrounding WMATA's MetroAccess program.

Cheh herself asked Yellow Cab here to get a better sense of what the accessible cabs are like in anticipation of a D.C. Council hearing on taxicabs that's happening Jan. 30. On the agenda is B19-635: The Wheelchair Accessible Taxicabs Parity Amendment Act of 2011. The act, introduced by Chairman Kwame Brown and co-sponsored by Councilmember Vincent Orange on Dec. 20, proposes the following:

To amend the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission Establishment Act of 1985 to establish the Wheelchair Accessible Taxicab Program (“program”) that requires 10% of every Taxicab Company to be Wheelchair accessible and fueled by alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas; to establish a Wheelchair Accessible Taxicab Unit within the Office of Taxicabs that shall oversee and enforce the requirements of the program to establish mandatory training for taxicab drivers and owners within the program; to establish a taxicab job training program; to establish a Wheelchair Accessible Taxicab Certificate Pilot System for the taxicabs in the program; to establish a Taxicab Certificate Enterprise Fund as a nonlapsing fund to fund the Wheelchair Accessible Taxicab Program; to establish the District of Columbia Taxicab Driver Training Program; to create initiatives for serving geographically under-served areas; and to require the Mayor to establish rules to implement the provisions of this act.

Cheh told me this afternoon that she's still researching the best way to move forward on the subject of accessible taxicabs. The councilmember brought up the case to mandate a certain number accessible cabs but said that some of her recent conversations have raised questions about whether that's wise. "That may not be the way to go," she said.

Find out more about booking one of these new accessible cabs here.

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