D.C. taxi drivers, struggling to hang on in an industry in decline, are getting a boost from the city in the form of subsidized fares.
They are ferrying foster children to school, taking cancer patients to treatment and helping veterans get to job interviews. The trips are subsidized by city programs designed to provide access to transportation for residents who are low-income and have special needs. The additional fares are a welcome source of income for cabbies, whose livelihoods have taken a hit with the rise of ride-hail services such as Uber and Lyft.
"Without these fares I would probably be out of business," said David Turner, who has been driving a cab in D.C. for 15 years. "There is hardly any more flagging of cabs like there used to be. You don't even see that anymore because everybody is going to the app now."
The rise of smartphone hailing has pushed out the legacy taxi, which has historically depended on street hails. For those drivers sticking to the profession, the District-subsidized trips, though still a fraction of all fares, are a blessing.
Most of those fares result from Transport DC, a program the city launched two years ago to use taxis as an alternative option to the costly MetroAccess program, the Metro shared-van service for the elderly and people with disabilities.
But most recently the city's Department of For-Hire Vehicles, which regulates taxis, has expanded on the success of Transport DC to issue new contracts to extend free or reduced-price rides to veterans, foster children and fixed-income cancer patients.
Taxis make as many as 17,000 Transport DC trips a month. Customers pay a flat $5 fare to travel anywhere in the District, and the city pays a $23 subsidy per trip. Those fares have become a significant share of taxi dispatched calls. The new programs, paid for through various city agencies, add a few hundred fares daily to the ailing industry.
"It definitely helps. It adds extra trips for drivers, and at the same time it benefits residents," said Jeff Schaeffer, vice president of Transco, a District taxi conglomerate of 19 companies and about 600 taxis. "It is a win-win."
As part of the effort to make use of the available taxi resources, the city also partnered last year with Transco to launch neighborhood shuttles in Wards 4, 7 and 8. The services were subsidized through a city grant that sought to provide fixed-route service in areas historically underserved by traditional and new transportation services.
City officials say the investment in the new transportation options has had an immediate positive return. Transport DC, for example, has helped reduce the city's MetroAccess subsidy by 100,000 trips — or about $5 million.
The DC Child and Family Services Agency, which sponsors the taxi option for foster children, is saving about 40 percent on the transportation by switching from a more expensive van provider, officials said. The taxi option, introduced in May, also allows multiple pickups to accommodate siblings living in different homes.
The testing period with 50 students was such a success, officials said, that the starting grant of $50,000 for the program was expanded to $500,000 and the agency is doubling the number of children using the service.
"Beyond the numbers in terms of cost savings and increased business for taxis, there is a deeper and more positive human consequence" said Ernest Chrappah, director of the Department of For-Hire Vehicles. "Lives are being transformed."
Inez Williams, 50, a Southeast Washington resident who was diagnosed with cancer five months ago, said the taxi option has made trips to her infusion sessions much easier and reliable. Williams had struggled for months to get across town to MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Northwest for medical treatment. She is unemployed, she said, and can't afford the taxi fare. So she used another subsidized van service that required a reservation for the round trip at least two days in advance. The van often would arrive late, she said. And when her treatment lasted longer than she had estimated, she would end up stranded at the hospital with no transportation.
"This makes life a bit easier," said Williams, who has used the taxi service three times.
For veterans, the VetsRide program that launched last month allows veterans earning less than $30,000 a year to take a taxi to medical appointments and to educational and employment opportunities. Ely S. Ross, director of the D.C. Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs, said the program can be a game-changer for people who find transportation a barrier to finding jobs and stability. As many as 5,400 veterans could benefit, he said.
A spokesman for the For-Hire Vehicles department said contracts were granted to taxi companies after a competitive selection process. Taxi drivers, who are already vetted by the agency, are enrolled automatically. The city finds contracting with taxis much easier and beneficial than using other transportation services because the industry provides accessible vehicles needed to serve some of the program's beneficiaries.
Chrappah said the programs are doing what they aim to do, which is "to improve transportation equity for our residents and bring new business opportunities for an ailing or underutilized taxi industry."
Taxicab fares have dropped year after year since the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft entered the market, luring away customers to the app-based services. The industry is still ailing years later, despite efforts to maintain its ground through innovation, taxi apps and fleet improvements.
Industry leaders and drivers say the city's "over regulation" on taxis puts them at a disadvantage. The city's 8,000 licensed taxicab drivers undergo more rigorous background checks, and the fleet is required to meet strict requirements. Regulators don't have any direct control over Uber and Lyft operations — as many as 178,000 private sedans operate in the city.
And the city contracts aren't making up for all the losses of the past years, drivers say.
"The city is benefiting from lower costs and the taxicab industry is showing that it is versatile enough to take any new business coming its way," said Roy Spooner, the general manager of Yellow Cab Co. "We got the technology, we got the ability, we got the experience and we have the accessibility."