Many people take for granted the ease with which they can hail Uber or Lyft drivers to get them to their destinations, but for many District residents, the sharing economy is a luxury beyond their economic and geographic reach.
So, the city partnered with a District-based cab company to provide a shuttle service in several transportation “deserts” — areas historically underserved by traditional, and new, transportation services.
Transco Inc. has launched four neighborhood shuttles as part of a pilot program in Wards 4, 7 and 8. The company used a $183,000 grant it won through a competitive process from the District’s Department of For Hire Vehicles (formerly the D.C. Taxicab Commission) to purchase the eight-seat vans.
The shuttles travel fixed routes, making loops around the neighborhoods, stopping at grocery stores, Metro stations and places in between. Rides are $3.25.
Riders can hail a shuttle as they would with a traditional cab — or prearrange rides by calling Transco’s call center, said company Vice President Jeff Schaeffer. Some people have even begun to call the drivers directly.
Schaeffer said all stops must be within the designated ward and not too far off the main shuttle route. Also, drivers can respond to street hails only if the van is empty so that other passengers already on the shuttle aren’t inconvenienced, he said.
Officials said they were interested in starting the service after internal research found that despite the city’s robust ride-hailing market, there were still areas that weren’t being served, said Ernest Chrappah, acting director of the Department of For Hire Vehicles.
The first shuttle launched in August, on a route that travels along Georgia Avenue to the Maryland border. A second Ward 4 shuttle travels a route that includes stops at the various hospitals, including MedStar Washington Hospital Center, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Chrappah said research identified getting to and from medical appointments was one of residents’ top needs.
Two other shuttles provide service to residents in Ward 7 along Minnesota Avenue, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and Ward 8 on a route that travels along Good Hope Road/Naylor Road from noon to 8 p.m. Those shuttles run Monday through Friday. The hours and routes may change depending on demand, Schaeffer said.
“We want to be able to respond to what the community wants,” he said.
The vans are driven by taxi drivers who have undergone background checks and have experience driving in the neighborhoods in which the service operates, Schaeffer said. He said they offer a safer alternative to “gypsy” cabs that sometimes operate out of parking lots around the neighborhoods.
On a recent Friday, veteran taxi driver John Scott, 77, maneuvered a shuttle van down Georgia Avenue. He jumped at the opportunity to drive the shuttle because he likes the idea of working a fixed route with steady hours. He drives Monday through Saturday.
He’s been operating a shuttle since August, but it hasn’t always been easy to persuade people to jump aboard. The vans are painted in the city’s official gray, red and yellow color scheme with “Neighborhood Ride Service” featured prominently on the back window. Scott’s van also lists the route: Georgia Avenue & V Street to Georgia Avenue & Eastern Avenue and the price: $3 plus the 25-cent surcharge.
“People look at the van and think ‘What is this?’ They don’t believe its $3.25 a ride. They think there’s a catch,” Schaeffer said. “It really takes a while.”
Still, he’s hopeful that once word gets around, business will grow. As a condition of receiving the grant, the shuttle program will run for at least a year.
In an effort to get the word out, officials have passed out fliers and information cards at beauty shops, community centers and libraries in the wards. City officials also are making available a small number of $15 vouchers to allow people to try out the service free, Schaeffer said.
Scott is certainly doing his part to boost ridership. He said after several months on the job, he has slowly built a small clientele. The service has become a popular option for Walmart employees who work the late-night shift — when Metrobuses run with far less frequency, he said.
Fare-wise, the shuttle falls somewhere between a Metrobus ride ($1.75) and an Uber ride and is considerably less than a cab. But Scott argues his van is cleaner, less crowded and can take passengers to their destinations more quickly. The shuttle also is a bargain for people traveling together, because a group will pay only $3.25 as long as they get off at the same place.
Scott, who starts his day at 4 p.m. and works until roughly midnight, Monday through Saturday, has developed a rhythm of sorts. He knows to drive slowly past the Walmart just north of Missouri Avenue NW so that potential riders will have a chance to see the van. A brief foray through the parking lot of the Safeway near Piney Branch Road often yields a few willing passengers.
“I try to drive slow to give them a chance to read what I’m about,” he said.
Prospective riders can flag Scott down anywhere along his Georgia Avenue route. He can’t venture too far off his daily loop but does have the leeway to do drop-offs if they’re not too far off Georgia.
His other secret? If he can beat the buses to their own stops, he can sometimes pull in a few additional customers, especially if the bus is particularly crowded.
But that also raises questions about the viability and the need for the service on this corridor. Multiple buses run frequently up and down Georgia Avenue, overlapping with the times Scott is on the road.
Chrappah, however, doesn’t view the duplication as a problem, saying that the key is offering people as many options as possible.
On a recent day, traffic was thick, and it was slow-going for Scott. Because it had been raining, there weren’t a lot of prospective customers, and the few who were had already rebuffed Scott’s pitch. But on a southbound swing, he managed to persuade Donna Baptiste, who was waiting at the bus stop across from Walmart, to give it a try.
Baptiste hopped in, set her packages on the seat and patted her hair. She hadn’t expected the rain and didn’t have an umbrella, so was glad to find shelter in the van.
“This looks like a good thing,” she said. After listening to Scott’s spiel, she added: “I think people would use it if they knew.”
The two chattered a bit. Scott quickly picked up that she had a Trinidadian accent, which drew a big grin from the freelance jewelry designer.
Baptiste lives a few blocks south of Walmart and said she takes the bus or walks when she’s got shopping to do. She said she rarely drives in the city because of traffic and the difficulty finding parking.
And even though the shuttle costs more than her usual bus ride, she said she could see herself becoming a regular if it saved her time.
And that’s what Scott and others are counting on.
D.C. Council member Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) said only a few months into the pilot is too early to know whether the service is worth the expense.
“This particular program has the potential to be very helpful to Ward 4’s senior population, many of whom cannot drive, and have expressed a desire for additional transportation alternatives to help them in their day-to-day lives,” he said.
Chrappah, however, has a broader vision for the shuttle program. He sees a day when the program will expand to all eight wards, filling other gaps in the transportation network.
As for the doubters, he said simply: “We are disrupting the status quo, and that is difficult for people to understand.”