Poll: Majority back changes coming to D.C. taxis

July 30, 2013

Credit card readers, a uniform paint color and other major changes loom for the District’s taxicabs. And riders couldn’t be happier.

A recent Washington Post poll finds that nearly seven in 10 D.C. area residents approved of the ­changes, even if that means fares will go up. More than twice as many people strongly approved of the ­changes as strongly disapproved.

For many passengers, the biggest change will be the guaranteed ability to pay with a credit card. The District has more than 6,500 taxis, and all of them must carry a credit card reader by Aug. 31, according to the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

“The credit card thing is essential,” said Gary Daemer, who splits his time between NoMa and a home in North Carolina. “I walk around with no cash in my pocket, unless I’m going to a cab.”

Some drivers said that in an increasingly cashless world, customers simply expect to be able to pay for things with a card.

“Everything is electronic,” said Solomon Shimeles, a driver for Elite. “People don’t carry money these days.”

Still, even though the coming improvements are popular with regular riders, that is a relatively small group. The majority of people in the region ride city cabs a few times a year or less, according to the poll.

But because so many visitors ride in D.C. cabs, the taxis become a key part of how the city is viewed, said Ron Linton, chair the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

“These people coming to go to meetings, or as tourists, a lot of times their first impression of the city is the taxi driver who picks them up,” Linton said. “They are critical to the success of the hospitality industry of the District of Columbia.”

Degfae Setegn, a driver who mostly works at Reagan National Airport, said he is fine adding a credit card reader because it is what his passengers expect to find.

“People come from all over the world,” he said. “They can be disappointed if you don’t have that.”

That disappointment can cost drivers money. Shimeles said he has to turn down “at least” two fares a day because they have no cash. “And most credit card fares are long ones, good ones,” he said.

Travelers took about 21 million rides in the District’s cabs last year, with the average trip costing $10 to $12, according to the taxi commission.

Credit card readers are just one of many ­changes resulting from the comprehensive taxi overhaul passed by the D.C. Council last year. The city’s cabs will eventually have monitors that could display advertising, news and public service announcements, much like the screens shouting at riders in New York taxicabs.

In addition, all of the District’s cabs will eventually sport the same color; in May, the taxi commission recommended red with a gray stripe. Taxis will also have uniform roof lights to make it easier to tell whether a cab is available.

The road to such reforms was slow in District, with drivers protesting parts of the overhaul, such as the addition of GPS tracking of trips.

Some drivers remain worried about the cost of adding a new credit card reader. Shimeles said maintaining and operating a taxicab adds up. “You’re not making a lot of money,” he said while waiting for a fare recently.

Based on other cities where cabs accept credit card payments, the commission thinks that tips will increase for D.C. cabdrivers taking cards, Linton said.

D.C. cabs, like others around the country, are trying to keep up with shifting rider expectations and technological improvements embodied by services such as the smartphone-based Uber.

Taxi drivers have protested such app-based car dispatch services in Los Angeles and Seattle, while cabbies in San Francisco decried efforts to electronically track drivers.

A little more than one in 10 respondents, 13 percent, say they have used an app to request Uber or something similar, according to the poll. These app-based services are most popular with wealthier, younger Washingtonians, two groups that also tended to be likely to ride regular cabs more often than most other people.

Rachel Holt, general manager of Uber in the District, said using smartphones to summon and pay for transportation is only going to become more common.

“It saves customers time, it saves drivers time, and it’s convenient,” she said.

Riders who had used Uber praised the ability to manage the entire trip with their phone.

“I love just having all my information in there and pressing a button and you’re good to go,” said Melissa Gervasio of Arlington County. “It makes things a lot easier.”

She said that some of her friends used Uber to get home from her wedding in April.

“It was a guaranteed way to get home,” said Gervasio, 28. “It was easy for them to press a button and get home with them and their dates.”

And while electronically hailing cabs remains relatively new, Linton said going forward some form of it will become the norm.

“I think a few years from now, it’ll look really funny to see someone on a sidewalk waving their arm in the air trying to hail a taxi,” he said.

The Post poll was conducted June 19-23 among a random sample of 1,106 adult residents of the Washington metropolitan area. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Craighill is polling manager of Capital insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Jon Cohen and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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