In New York City, green-colored taxicabs serve the outer buroughs, a system D.C.'s new taxicab chief says he wants to adopt.
The District’s new taxicab chief hopes to bring taxis to long underserved neighborhoods as early as this spring, modeling his program on New York’s green cab system that created a fleet of vehicles to serve that city’s outer boroughs.
“We are a city of 650,000 people and 225,000 of us don’t have adequate taxicab service,” said Eric Rogers, the interim chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
It is an old complaint that D.C. taxis usually avoid Washington’s predominantly black neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River. Rogers said the problem also persists in outer portions of Wards 3, 4, 5, and 6.
The reasons for the lack of service touch on sensitive issues. Cab drivers, many of whom are immigrants from Africa, generally bristle at the suggestion they harbor racial bigotry toward people of color. They typically say their decisions to stay in certain neighborhoods — downtown, Capitol Hill, etc. — are based on business; they cruise the places where they believe they will find the most fares. Cabbies also say the busiest neighborhoods are the safest.
While Rogers does not dismiss concerns about crime, he said he will not tolerate racial stereotypes. Licensed cab drivers are required to serve all wards.
“Certain perceptions have developed because of certain happenings in the city,” Rogers said.
“We did have the crack wars in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we were a violent city. There is a very real concern about safety, which I definitely appreciate. But the law is what the law is. It is very clear when you take that license you are supposed to pick up any resident or any visitor in the District of Columbia regardless of race, creed, color, sex, or national origin," he added.
His position has been stated before by other public officials, but to date the District has failed to remedy the problem. Now, Rogers believes he has the answer: the “community cab” program.
“If folks are familiar with New York City, the city has a two-tiered cab system. They have the Yellow Cabs that you typically see in movies and when you go into Manhattan, but they also have Green Cabs in the outer boroughs. We want to do something similar,” he said.
New York City established its Green Cab system after a study determined that 95 percent of yellow cab pick-ups happened in Manhattan below 96th Street and at LaGuardia and JFK Airports.
D.C. officials lack such precise data. The taxicab commission has been collecting trip data since the start of the smart meter and credit card payment system in late 2013, but has yet to tabulate it. Rogers hopes to launch that project soon so the commission knows the location of pickups and lengths of trips.
“We would issue new licenses to taxicab drivers to work exclusively in these [outer wards]. We’d use some technology called ‘geo-fencing’ to ensure they don’t cross over, and we are thinking of using it as a training program for new drivers to teach them how to be an ambassador,” said Rogers, referring to his initiative to make cabbies experts on the District’s road system and tourist scene.
Details have yet to be worked out, including whether the “community cabs” would have their own paint scheme and whether current drivers would be given the opportunity to participate. As for the latter, Rogers said drivers unhappy about diminished income because of competition with Uber might find the outer wards enticing. The stereotype that demand for cab service is lacking east of the Anacostia is another Rogers would like to put to rest.
“Our internal goal is to ensure that pretty much no matter where you are inside the city, if you want to hail a cab or e-hail a cab, you will be picked up in less than five minutes,” he said.
In interviews in Anacostia on Thursday, residents said they would welcome the change because the situation could hardly be any worse.
“I rarely see cabs here,” said Kathy Dixon. “I just come to accept they are not coming out here to Southeast.”
“It is very rarely you see a cab in this area because of the stereotypes, but we are just very nice, humble people,” said Ed Duell. “If they want to act like that and miss out on cab fare, that is on them. Everybody is stereotyping about gang violence and trouble.”
Duell said the “community cab” idea sounded promising.
“I think it would be a great idea. People out here could really use a cab,” he said as snow blanketed Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. As pedestrians made their way along slippery sidewalks there was not a taxi in sight.
Life-long Southeast resident Warren Cunningham, 61, said concerns about crime are over blown. “If I were a cabbie, I’d pick you up here.”
The largest independent cab company in Washington said it supports the idea of the District licensing a fleet designated for underserved neighborhoods.
“We certainly know there is money to be made there,” said Roy Spooner, the general manager of Yellow Cab Co. “We fully support any activities or ideas on how we can serve the entire city equally.”
Spooner said he personally has encouraged individual drivers to cruise Southeast D.C. and they are happy with the results.
"A lot of drivers are working from very old history, and the city is evolving and things are changing rapidly. They need to come to grips with that. Our drivers are seeing the neighborhoods and seeing the need for service, and after they run those trips they continue to stay in that area and serve it,” Spooner said.