So she’d take the boys — with the baby girls in a stroller — and ride two buses to their father.
”I’m a single mother trying to get back on my feet,” she said. “It’s been a tough road. I have my good days and bad days,” said Smith, who is 36 and has five children.
Those weekends when the buses were late and the trip could take two hours each way were bad days.
But for the past couple of months, she’s been one of the few who have taken advantage of one of D.C.'s latest experiments in partnering with private companies to fill in the gaps where Metro doesn’t serve.
People going to and from one of eight Metro stations east of the Anacostia River have only had to pay $3 to take a D.C. Yellow Cab, as long as they were coming from or going to another place east of the river. The city’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles, which runs the program, picks up the rest of the fare.
It’s been a rare relief in Smith’s life. She, with her kids and the stroller, have been taking cabs 15 minutes to the Deanwood Metro station, where they take a 10-minute Orange Line ride to New Carrollton.
“The other day it felt like 105 degrees, it was so handy being able to call a cab,” she said.
But for reasons that are unclear — possibly because $3 is too much in lower income communities, or that not many know about it, or that traditional cabs are out of vogue in the age of Lyft and Uber — hardly anyone has been using the program. There were only about 40 subsidized rides in May and June, said David Do, director of D.C’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles.
So the city is going further. Now it is subsidizing the first $10 of every ride, making most trips essentially free.
The idea comes as the city and even Metro are trying out several partnerships as the popularity of ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber increase expectations of door-to-door service.
At the same time it started the Taxi-to-Rail program in May, Do’s department began partnering with another taxi company, Transco, to run a free shuttle van service within an area straddling parts of Northeast and Northwest.
Metro this month also began subsidizing the first $3 of Lyft rides for late-night workers.
Traditional cab companies are looking for opportunities to diversify themselves as they face more competition.
“If Amazon came to us about delivering packages, I’d consider it,” said Roy Spooner, general manager of D.C. Yellow Cab.
Some, however, question subsidizing private companies with public dollars that can be used to improve transit.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, Metro’s largest union, criticizes the agency’s late-night subsidy program. “WMATA is effectively subsidizing its competition and undermining its own long-term viability in exchange for short-term monetary savings,” the union said in a statement.
James Pizzurro, a software engineer and lead developer of the real-time transit app MetroHero, declined to comment on the specific D.C. programs. But the partnerships, in general, could make it easier for some to get around, he said.
“The better path, in my opinion, would be to put this money and effort into making transit better and work for more people more often,” he said.
But Do said the taxi program is aimed at increasing Metro ridership in an area where 80% of residents live more than a 15-minute walk to a station and spend a large share of their income on transportation. He noted the subsidized trips have to begin or end at the eight rail stations: Deanwood, Minnesota Ave, Capitol Heights, Benning Road, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Southern Ave and Naylor Road.
Do said he’s evaluating the shuttle and taxi experiments, which will both run until at least Sept. 30. With the free shuttle program getting far more ridership thus far, he said that could replace the taxis east of the Anacostia.
But the program’s bid to attract more riders by changing the subsidy from a flat rate might make it harder for people like Smith, whose trips tend to be longer and cost $20. Instead of paying $3, she’s responsible for the remaining $10 after the city picks up the first $10.
“It’s hard on a strict income,” she said.