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Wheelchair-Accessible Taxi Program Enjoys Early Success In D.C., Despite Problems

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An MV-1, a new model of wheelchair-accessible van with side entrance ramps, on display at the Northeast D.C. office of Transco, a major D.C. cab company.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
An MV-1, a new model of wheelchair-accessible van with side entrance ramps, on display at the Northeast D.C. office of Transco, a major D.C. cab company.

About one-fourth of the District’s 140 wheelchair-accessible taxicabs are sitting in parking lots unused, three months after the government began heavily subsidizing the purchases and rentals of new vans with wheelchair ramps.

Despite the apparent setback to efforts to expand accessible transportation in Washington, regulators say participation in the program actually improved significantly since the subsidies — previously unspent for two years — started flowing in the late summer. In June, only 35 of 83 vehicles (42 percent) were in use, according to data provided by the D.C. Taxicab Commission (DCTC).

“As of today we have 141 vehicles,” said commission chairman Ernest Chrappah. “We currently have 73 percent of all wheelchair-accessible vehicles being used in service.”

The reason why about 40 vans are sitting in the lots of the D.C. taxi companies that purchased them is largely a matter of economics: cabbies looking to rent a taxi usually prefer sedans to wheelchair-accessible vans (WAVs) because the former carry a cheaper rental fee. And a long-standing freeze on the issuance of new H-tags (taxi licenses) has left prospective drivers with no choice but to rent.

The commission is considering opening up the licensing system next year to new drivers interested in owning WAVs. In the meantime, Chrappah expects the participation rate in the existing fleet to continue to grow; the subsidy program provides rental offsets and free disability sensitivity training.

“I’d like to think the industry is coming to terms that there is a need for this service and the investments they’ve made have to pay off one way or the other,” he said. “More importantly, the grant program we launched a few months ago is beginning to bear fruit.”

“It’s incredible”

Wheelchair users typically order a ride with a phone call, and a van is dispatched by one of the cab companies participating in the TransportDC program. WAVs usually are not hailed on the street, but that may start to change.

“It’s incredible. Two different times I have been sitting at a bus stop and a wheelchair-accessible taxi came by,” said Case, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. “I was actually able to hail a taxi, unheard of in the disability community.”

Before the expansion of TransportDC, only 20 WAVs were available in all of Washington. But by the end of June every D.C. cab company was required to convert at least six percent of their fleets to WAVs.

“I can give you a personal story,” added Case, who is a member of the taxicab commission’s disability advisory committee. “A very close friend of mine recently fell, broke her hip, and was at surgery. Having this cab service allowed me to be there after surgery and stay late... and still be able to get an accessible cab home.”

Some companies, cabbies are grumbling

At a recent ceremony to recognize drivers who completed the sensitivity training, Imran Butt was in no mood to applaud. The owner of four cab companies, he was required under the 6 percent mandate to purchase 12 WAVs — before the subsidies started flowing.

All twelve are sitting in his lot.

“Nobody is renting, because there is a lot of choice in the market. We are begging the drivers to please rent this one. Whatever [they] want, we’ll give [them] the rental discount, but nobody is renting,” Butt said.

Until drivers start renting his WAVs, his sunk costs will continue to grow.

“I am paying every month like $7,000 and also the dispatch fees and credit card fees, and the cars are sitting since July in the parking lot,” said Butt, who said some drivers are afraid the vans carry a stigma along with the higher rental fee.

“They think it’s a wheelchair cab, so maybe you won’t make money.”

Other companies are finding more success. At Yellow Cab, which has 29 WAVs, general manager Roy Spooner said he is able to offer rental subsidies to his drivers, a benefit from being an early participant in RollDC, a pilot project to provide wheelchair-ready transportation for people with disabilities.

“We are not doing this for profit. We consider this a social responsibility,” Spooner said. “We are having more success at keeping drivers in our vehicles. The other companies are purchasing vehicles outright, so they have a bigger financial burden to carry.”

Butt and Spooner joined other cab company executives and District officials at the ceremony at Transco, one of the largest cab fleets in Washington. A host of cabbies were on hand, including Nebiyu Daniel, who regularly rents a WAV.

Daniel said if DCTC opens up the H-tag system next year, he might purchase a van with a wheelchair ramp.

“I have been driving in the city since 2002, close to 13 years, and I should have my own tag so I can have the opportunity to own,” Daniel said. “Demand is high, and it is hard to find a rental sedan. So I choose to rent this van.”

A 39-page report by DCTC’s disability advisory committee explicitly calls for the release of close to 200 H-tags to expand accessible transportation in the District. The report recently was submitted to both the commission and D.C. Council.

What about Uber and Lyft?

While TransportDC remains a work in progress, Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing apps continue to offer no WAVs in Washington, and no change appears imminent.

“We very much welcome and are eager to partner with individuals with wheelchair-accessible vehicles,” said Zuhairah Washington, Uber’s D.C. general manager. “It’s something that we’ve been trying to make happen for some time.”

Uber repeatedly has approached cab companies seeking partnerships to share the available WAVs, but the companies have shown no willingness to work with their rival.

The companies are right to turn Uber away, according to Heidi Case, because sharing vehicles would not increase the total number of vans on the streets.

“I would want Uber to see a change in attitude and a change in access,” she said. “For real improvement, everybody is going to need to get those vehicles. And Uber and Lyft should be required to meet those same requirements of the taxicab companies.”

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, the chief author of the legislation that formally legalized Uber, said she will work on a solution.

“We’ve had obstacles all along the way. We’ll keep working at it and we will sort it out,” she said.

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