The D.C. Taxicab Commission unveiled a plan to bring vehicle-for-hire services to underserved neighborhoods in the form of “courtesy vans,” a concession by officials that most regular cab drivers will continue to refuse to go to certain areas of the District — mostly poorer, minority neighborhoods east of the Anacostia — despite the law requiring taxis serve all parts of the city.
The courtesy vans would be licensed like regular taxis and hold up to seven passengers or six wheelchairs, or a combination thereof. The vans would operate in four or five distinct zones, offering rides for a fixed price within those areas, said commission chairman Ron Linton at a news conference on Thursday.
“They would not go outside those boundaries. If people need a ride that went beyond that service area, they would be dropped off at a Metro, at a bus stop, or a taxi stand,” said Linton.
The new service would not solve the problem of taxi drivers who refuse to carry African-American passengers from downtown to Southeast and vice versa, for instance.
“We had started meetings with ANCs and other community groups to discuss what would be appropriate boundaries for a specialized service to take care of people in areas where they can’t get rides,” said Linton. “That incorporates an area where people generally are trying to go from two to 20 blocks, from home to a grocery, from home to a pharmacy, and have great difficulty.”
The chairman said in some neighborhoods it is next to impossible to hail a cab, a sentiment echoed by Ward 8 resident Benjamin Brown, in an interview on Martin Luther King Avenue SE in Anacostia.
“It is a travesty, but at the same time you see what is going on in Missouri and different parts of this country,” said Brown. “It lets us know that even though it is 2014 people still feel a certain type of way about us of color. And it’s shame.”
Officials are targeting next summer for the launch of the courtesy van service, pending public hearings and the approval of the D.C. Council and mayor.
During a trip from the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW to Anacostia, cab driver Niiteiko Kweifio, an African immigrant, offered some common rationalizations for why drivers avoid African-American neighborhoods, although he denied discriminating against passengers himself.
“I guess they are afraid of the area. Things happen in that area more than in downtown. But things happen [downtown], too,” he said. “But down there [downtown Washington] you can call cops and they will be there in a minute. Down here [Southeast] it takes time for the cops to show up.”
Fear of crime and the perceived lack of fare opportunities are common reasons provided by cab drivers for why they avoid certain neighborhoods and prefer to stay in the busy business and pedestrian corridors near convention centers and Capitol Hill. Taxicab regulators and human rights officials stress it is illegal for a cabbie to deny a person a ride because they want to go to a neighborhood far from downtown where they may not receive a return fare upon dropping the passenger off.
“Southeast has a reputation of being an extremely rough neighborhood, but at the same time it is getting better. Crime is down in this area. It is no different than the rest of the city. We are looked upon differently because everyone here is ethnic,” said Brown, the Ward 8 resident.