D.C. taxi changes overwhelmingly backed by residents, Post poll finds

By nearly 2 to 1, District residents11 support a plan to improve taxi service backed by city officials and funded by a small per-ride surcharge, a Washington Post poll finds. But they are increasingly skeptical about the switch to a meter-based fare system.

Four years after the meter switch, about half of the city’s residents approve of the changes, but the proportion of residents dissatisfied with the change has risen from 30 percent to 37 percent since 2010, when The Post last asked them.

Citywide support is significantly higher for the new package of changes, which were passed in July by the D.C. Council with Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s support. They include putting credit-card readers and satellite navigation systems in the city’s 6,500 cabs as well as painting them a uniform color and requiring fleets to have a certain percentage of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

The improvements will be funded by a 50-cent surcharge per ride, and more than six in 10 say it’s a good deal.

“The biggest cities in the world have all those kinds of things,” said Jonathan Ashburn, 30. “If Washington’s going to be one of those important cities, they need to take steps like this.” Ashburn, who lives in the Trinidad neighborhood and takes a cab at least once a week, said he considered the surcharge “reasonable.”

Stephen Quint, 67, said the credit-card requirement is a no-brainer. “That kind of technology is what people want to have these days,” he said. “Most people don’t carry cash anymore.”

Quint also finds the 50-cent charge reasonable. But some residents, while supporting the changes, questioned whether an additional fee is necessary to fund them.

Allen Mayo, a 41-year-old Capitol Hill resident and occasional taxi user, said he understands why there might be fees on credit-card transactions, but he said that a new charge on cash rides “doesn’t make sense.”

“If you’re gonna pay cash, you’ve gotta pay less,” he said. “I’m sorry — there’s no reason for the charge. All the little nickel-and-dime fees, I can’t stand.”

Residents who use cabs most often are most supportive of the changes. Among those who hail taxis at least once a week, more than seven in 10 approve of the plan. Even those who take cabs less frequently remain supportive by wide margins.

The difference between frequent and infrequent riders is starker when it comes to meters. Seventy-one percent of weekly taxi users generally approve of meters, with about half saying they strongly approve. Those who rarely or never take cabs tend to disapprove of the meter change, pushed through by then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in 2008.

Opinions about the meters break down most starkly along racial lines, with 73 percent of white residents supporting the change vs. 32 percent of black residents. More than one-third of African Americans strongly disapprove of the change.

Those with lower incomes and residents living east of the Anacostia River are also more likely to support zones over meters. Those between the ages of 30 and 50 are significantly more likely to endorse the meter switch than their elders.

David Waterman, 49, said he thought that the meter switch was a bad idea then and that it’s a bad idea now. The resident of Eckington, in Northeast, said he’s paying about as much now for his rides as he did before the switch but remains uncomfortable.

“For me, there’s just too many variables,” he said. With zones, “it was a set price regardless of traffic or whether the taxi driver tried to make the route longer. . . . It’s the predictability I like. I don’t trust these drivers.”

But Lula Barnes, a 70-year-old Columbia Heights resident, said she finds the meter system less susceptible to a driver’s bad intentions.

“With the meter, you know exactly what you’re supposed to be paying,” she said. Tourists, Barnes admitted, might be at risk, but “I know where I’m going. You don’t have that opportunity to ride me all over D.C. and run up a big bill.”

The live telephone poll reached 1,002 District residents between July 15 and 17. The poll, which used both land-line and mobile phones, has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

In follow-up interviews, poll respondents cited more general concerns about the taxi industry.

Barnes, for instance, said she felt that drivers appear to engage in racial profiling. “They need to stop looking at the color of people’s skins and decide who they’re going to pick up and who they’re not going to pick up,” she said.

Ashburn expressed hope that the changes will lead to better service generally: “It’s going to weed out some people who are not legitimately running cabs [and] just make it harder and harder to run a sketchy cab business.”

Quint said he avoids District cabs if he can. If he’s heading from his North Cleveland Park home to Reagan National Airport, he calls an Arlington County company, Red Top. “Whenever I can, I try to use them,” he said. “They’re reliable, and the guys know where they’re going.”

Jon Cohen and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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