Changes to taxi rules will put more wheelchair-accessible cabs on D.C. streets


A line of taxi cabs wait for passengers at Union Station. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Starting next month, hotels and other venues will be able to alert cab drivers when there is a surge in business; more wheelchair-accessible taxis will cruise city streets, and the time it takes prospective drivers to become licensed will shorten dramatically.

The changes, which take effect Oct. 1, are included in a package of initiatives recently approved by the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

The “enhancements” described by commission chairman Ron Linton are part of an effort to improve customer service in an industry desperately seeking an edge in the age of popular and fast-growing ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

And they come on the heels of other reforms, including new requirements that D.C. cabs accept credit cards, install new dome lights and shift to uniform red and gray that mimic the District’s Circulator buses.

A new text-alert system that will allow hotels and other businesses to hail taxis for large groups is based on feedback from the city’s hospitality industry, Linton said.

“What we are hearing not infrequently is that after the end of a big banquet or other event, there may be a couple hundred people ready to go home but only 10 or 15 cabs,” Linton said.

Approved users will be able to broadcast a message that cabs are needed at a certain place. The alerts will be transmitted to monitors in the cabs, giving drivers the option of responding. Until now, drivers depended on word-of-mouth or a pre-printed paper list noting when and where large events were happening in the city.

“With so many independent cab companies, it’s difficult to get the message out collectively in one fell swoop,” said Elliott Ferguson, a taxicab commission member who is president and chief executive of Destination DC, a nonprofit that promotes tourism in the District. “If a cab wants to compete against app-based [drivers], this will help.”

The commission also is unveiling a program that will allow dialysis patients who use Metro’s paratransit service to use cabs rather than the transit agency’s MetroAccess to transport them to their appointments. Linton said the program could save D.C. government nearly $1.8 million in its first year because fares generally would be lower than Metro’s service.

Cab companies will be eligible to purchase surplus MetroAccess vehicles from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. For every 3,000 rides a cab company provides as part of the program, it will be required to add one wheelchair-accessible cab to its fleet. Linton said the program could add many as 65 wheelchair-accessible cabs to the D.C. cab fleet in the first year.

A final change will significantly reduce the length of time it takes prospective cab drivers to be licensed. Starting Oct. 1, applicants who provide the appropriate paperwork, pass the driver’s exam, submit fingerprints and pass an FBI background check will be able to get their license in as little as five days. Previously, the process could take as long as 90 days, Linton said.

“It was discouraging for an individual who put in an application to not hear anything,” he said. “It’s just not fair. It’s not a good way to run an agency.”

Linton declined to detail how the commission was able to shorten the wait time so dramatically, saying only that it involved “cutting out a lot of bureaucracy.”

Cab companies said the change could help get more drivers on the road quickly.

“It’s a good thing,” said Imran Butt, head of Empire Cab Association, which has 400 vehicles. Butt said he recently spent $130,000 to upgrade his fleet and would like to see more of those cars out on the road.

Mohammad Momen of Federal Cab Company said the change could help, but was skeptical about whether the commission could really issue the appropriate credentials in less than a week.

Destination DC’s Ferguson said the new programs continue efforts to modernize D.C.’s taxicabs and improve service.

“It just makes me cringe to see folks trying to catch a cab,” he said. “It doesn’t position D.C. as a first-class destination when folks have to wait for services they can get in other cities immediately.”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.

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