The District’s cab owners are scrambling to get their new dome lights installed

John Kelly
Columnist October 28, 2013

In the corner of an auto repair shop on Franklin Street NE, a little bit of D.C. history is being painted over. Cabs of many colors are being transformed into cabs of two colors: red and gray, the new official livery of Washington’s entire taxi fleet.

When I visited Patriot Auto Services recently, one freshly painted car was drying in the paint booth. Another had the gray swash already applied and was sanded, masked and awaiting its coat of red.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Technically, the red is Geranium 180-C-63, the same color as the DC Circulator buses. The gray is Warm Gray 2. (Could that, I wonder, be an homage to Mayor Vincent Gray?)

Soon, Yellow Cab taxis will be red. So, too, will Orange cabs.

Gold Star cabs will be red. They were never gold. They were, according to the list maintained by the D.C. Taxicab Commission, “coffee brown,” which is not to be confused with the “brown metallic” of Pan Am Cab or the “Sahara gold metallic” of Noble Cab.

The red/gray color change will take place over the next three years or so, as older vehicles are replaced.

I will miss the rainbow. D.C.’s cabs may not have rivaled the diversity of bird life in the rain forest, but they were little rolling islands of quasi-individuality.

Gone, too, will be the lighted, plastic diamonds that adorned the roofs of Diamond Cab taxis. Most other D.C. cabs had white domes marked TAXI and CALL 911. Many still do, even though starting Friday any cab without the new-style dome lights can be impounded.

At Patriot, mechanics were busy installing the new lights. They are big and boxy, with a display capable of displaying scrolling messages:

TAXI FOR HIRE

TAXI ON CALL

TAXI OFF DUTY

The D.C. Taxicab Commission has patented the design, so no other city can copy it.

“I can guarantee you no other jurisdiction is going to want to patent those dome lights,”Mo Rahim told me above the whir of air wrenches. Mo’s family runs Patriot Auto. They also oversee two cab companies: Patriot (gray body, green top) and Rock Creek (medium-blue body, gray top).

For the past few weeks he’s been working till 10 or 11 every night making sure dome lights are installed, not just on their cabs, but on any that come in.

Mo said he wished the dome lights were better. Drivers have to get out of their cabs to turn them off, something he said cabbies aren’t looking forward to doing in lousy weather. And the scrolling message is not visible from the rear of the cab, only the front.

He also pointed out that, as big as the dome lights will appear in people’s rearview mirrors, some drivers are sure to mistake cabs for police cars. He’s not sure what this will mean.

Ron Linton, chairman of D.C.’s taxi commission, is confident the new lights will be a success.

“One of the biggest complaints we have from people who ride taxis is what we call failure to haul,” he said when I called him up.

That’s when a cab pulls up to someone — “Generally it’s a young black guy, sometimes a guy in jeans, sometimes in a suit,” Ron said — then, when he doesn’t like where the fare wants to go, claims to be off-duty.

“With these dome lights, no one’s going to be able to do that,” Ron said. It will be clear whether the cab is on duty. And it will be easier to file a complaint, because every dome light includes that cab’s unique ID number.

I’ve heard grumbles from cab drivers about all these changes. Repainting a cab, installing the dome light and hooking up a credit card reader costs more than $1,000. It doesn’t help that, as my colleague Lori Aratani reported, drivers have reported a glitch in the Hitch credit card payments.

Cab drivers are an often peevish bunch. Who can blame them? Theirs is not an easy life. They have to hustle endlessly to make money. Fares sometimes bail on them. Driving a cab often ranks among the most dangerous jobs in the United States. And is there a more sedentary profession? No taxi driver is ever going to be able to work from a treadmill desk.

“I tell it like it is,” Ron said. “The only thing we have in mind are the customers who use this system. Are they satisfied with it and are the owners and drivers making money? Our answer is, we think that’s yes in both cases.”

Meanwhile, at Patriot Auto, the countdown continues.

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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