Kelly Mack has used a wheelchair since she was a child and diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She's struggled to get around D.C. because it can be inaccessible for people with mobility disabilities. She says there's a 50/50 chance of getting an accessible taxi.
Kelly Mack wasn't surprised when the taxi she booked over a week in advance for her Sept. 26 doctor's appointment never arrived. There's a 50/50 chance of a no-show, says Mack, which is why wheelchair users like herself can't rely on D.C.'s taxis. While they waited in vain at her one-bedroom apartment in Cathedral Heights, Mack and her husband Richard recalled other similar disappointments.
There was the time a few years ago when Richard's medical provider asked that someone pick him up after a procedure as he'd be groggy. The cab Mack pre-booked to do so never showed. More recently, they were forced to book a hotel near Reagan National Airport the night before their flight when a taxi company said they couldn't guarantee an accessible ride would arrive on time, despite her advance reservation. Just the previous week, the couple missed their dinner reservation at Jaleo by José Andrés because the taxi they booked with Yellow Cab Company weeks in advance canceled at the last minute. The taxi company booked another driver but not in time for their reservation. They ended up ordering Chipotle delivery.
"There's a misconception that people with mobility disabilities don't have the interest in getting around and going places," says Mack, who has used a wheelchair since her childhood diagnosis of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She enjoys concerts at the Kennedy Center and Blues Alley Club, as well as a nice meal with her husband and friends — "I definitely am interested in taking taxis," she says.
Mack isn't alone: even after legislative attempts to democratize the service, advocates say that D.C. taxis are still inaccessible for many of the city's over 115,000 residents with a disability. D.C. passed a 2012 law requiring taxi companies with over 20 vehicles to have a minimum 20% wheelchair-accessible fleet by 2018. An advisory commission created by that same legislation recommended that number eventually reach 100%, and that the city create a central dispatch for accessible taxis via a smartphone app. The commission also recommended various incentives for taxi companies and drivers, such as giving accessible taxi owners a tax credit and waiving their licensing fees, and penalties for those who do not provide accessible service.
But much of these efforts never materialized. According to the city's Department of For-Hire Vehicles (DFHV), which regulates the industry, D.C. never enforced the 20% requirement, instead opting to hold companies to a lower threshold. Today, wheelchair-accessible taxis represent just 4% of the city's roughly 5,300 total cabs. Of the vehicles that do exist, even fewer drivers are willing to operate them, said D.C. government and taxi company officials in recent public meetings of DFHV's Accessibility Advisory Committee, which is tasked with making the city's for-hire vehicles more accessible. (DCist/WAMU reviewed recordings of these meetings).
"There is no accountability," said Heidi Case, a longtime disability advocate who chairs the committee. "I don't think the city council's paying attention."
Consequently, residents who require wheelchairs have fewer options for getting around the city, according to multiple advocates and people with disabilities interviewed by DCist/WAMU. Mack says her best option is Metro, but that has its own problems given that station elevators sometimes break. (WMATA did not respond to a request for comment.) Interviewees added that ride-hailing companies are also unreliable: Lyft doesn't even have a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) option and while Uber has one, drivers are challenging to access. The former director of the Office on Disability in the US Department of Health and Human Services, Henry Claypool, told The Verge in July that he's never successfully hailed a wheelchair-accessible Lyft or Uber from his home in Arlington.
When reached for comment about Mack's recently canceled taxi, the general manager of Yellow Cab Company of DC, Roy Spooner, told DCist/WAMU that Mack could file a service complaint with them or DFHV. Mack has filed a complaint with DFHV and D.C.'s Office of Human Rights and a decision is pending, according to email correspondence shared with DCist/WAMU.
Kelly Mack and her husband negotiate trying to get a wheelchair accessible taxi from their Northwest DC home to a doctor's appointment. But the taxi does not arrive and they take the bus downtown.
The false promise of accessible taxis
In the Accessibility Advisory Committee's July meeting, which was open to the public, the DFHV's senior policy advisor at the time, Wendy Klancher, told members that only 12% of a taxi company's fleet is expected to be wheelchair accessible. In the same meeting, DFHV shared a presentation of June data which found that only 229 of the 5,149 total cabs in the city were wheelchair accessible that month. All trips provided by wheelchair accessible vehicles decreased, from 9.6% in June 2021 to 4.63% in June 2022. Those numbers have not improved in the months since.
D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles/
A slide from a DFHV presentation.
D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles/
"We are meeting the spirit of the law," Klancher assured the committee, adding that increasing the number of WAVs wouldn't improve service because companies are struggling to get drivers to operate those vehicles.
Klancher cited June data showing that only 80 of the city's 229 accessible vehicles took trips that month. Representatives of two taxi companies added that many accessible vehicles are sitting in garages, unused.
"What people with disabilities are sick of is that we are unable to be spontaneous," Ian Watlington, a D.C. resident who is a senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network told DCist/WAMU. Watlington said he doesn't ride cabs often because they "just really aren't an option" and instead relies on Metro.
Watlington has a mobility disability and says the fact that Metro's elevators don't always work means he sometimes gets stuck at a particular station. There are free shuttles to help people get from station to station, but Watlington says it can take hours. One time, he missed a medical appointment because the elevators got stuck.
Fred Maahs, Jr., an international disability rights advocate who often commutes from Wilmington to the city for work, says the D.C. transportation scene was starting to show progress until "a couple of steps backwards" in recent years.
Maahs started using a wheelchair in 1980 — he became paraplegic after an accident at 18. Maahs says he books cabs a couple of weeks in advance, then calls the day before to confirm. He usually relies on the Royal Taxi company – he's become good friends with the drivers and says their cabs have never failed to show up. Rarely, for special occasions, he might book a private driver. He never uses Uber or Lyft because he's heard "nightmare stories."
The city has a program that provides taxi service to residents with accessibility needs called Transport DC, but residents interviewed by DCist/WAMU say it's not sufficient.
Case says the program was "life changing" when it first started in 2014. She used to be able to get limitless rides within 30 minutes of calling. After failing to budget for the thousands of monthly trips requested, however, D.C. officials started to limit the program in 2016, only allowing for medical- or work-related trips for half the month. Officials later limited it to 5 round trips per month but to any destination. A DFHV spokesperson said these changes were necessary to keep Transport DC sustainable.
Case says that as the city slashed Transport DC's budget, accessible cabs became less dependable, with long wait times if they showed up at all. Both ridership and spending for the program has significantly decreased: in October 2018 the program spent roughly $484,000 and in October of 2022 it spent just $205,000.
Case suspects drivers started to withdraw from the program because ridership dipped. Spooner of Yellow Cab agrees, telling DCist/WAMU "when the [government] started playing with it, it discouraged some drivers." He says some companies allowed their WAV drivers to withdraw from Transport DC completely, unlike Yellow Cab.
The pandemic has only made things worse, says Case, and she's stopped using the service altogether.
"I leave the house, honestly, much less than I used to," says Case.
The struggle to get and keep WAV drivers
A major barrier to wheelchair accessible vehicles is finding drivers to volunteer to operate the vans, which typically have a side or rear entry wheelchair ramp that can be expensive to purchase new or retrofit — and in both cases, pricey to maintain.
All of D.C. taxi drivers are independent operators, according to Yellow Cab, which means that companies cannot require them to operate accessible vehicles. Taxicabs owned by individual drivers are not beholden to accessibility regulations due to an amendment introduced by outgoing Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh to the 2012 legislation. A DFHV spokesperson says 27% of active WAV drivers are owner-operators.
The privatized industry is also why D.C. isn't violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which regulates government entities but not private ones, says Kenneth Shiotani, a senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, who adds that wheelchair users face similar problems in many cities.
While there are several incentives through Transport DC, according to DFHV, such as an extra $10 per trip and a $200 gas card for top performers, disability advocates say more needs to be done to make it easier for drivers to participate.
In DFHV's July and September meetings, Yellow Cab marketing manager Christopher Grayton, said his company has struggled to recruit or keep WAV drivers because those vehicles are so expensive for drivers to operate. In the July meeting, Ariel Emata of Transco said they have five wheelchair accessible vehicles but no one to drive them.
It's only gotten worse during the pandemic — the decrease in ridership plus skyrocketing gas costs has made it hard for companies to retain any drivers.
"A lot of drivers have left the industry," Grayton said. "Some drivers won't come back."
Saleem Abdul-Mateen was with Royal Taxi Company and drove Fred Maahs regularly until he retired last year. He says he began driving D.C. cabs in 1987 and was one of the first cab drivers to operate WAVs when he started in 2009. Abdul-Mateen rented his WAV from a taxi company, paying a weekly fee out-of-pocket. Buying a WAV when he started driving them would have cost around $35,000 (the equivalent of nearly $49,000 today).
Abdul-Mateen describes himself as 'service-oriented.' But for a lot of drivers, taking the initiative to drive a WAV is challenging, particularly in an industry where they already get irregular hours and pay.
"I just felt like it was time to move on," he says. "I'm 71 years old, it's time to stop. I've done my service to the taxi industry, and most assuredly to the wheelchair accessible industry."
Drivers are also feeling less safe, with many getting exposed to COVID-19 and other viruses during the pandemic. "There's no protection for the driver," Abdul-Mateen says. Maintaining and driving a vehicle in D.C. also felt increasingly like a hazard – fatal traffic accidents spiked last year in the city and across the country.
A DFHV spokesperson tells DCist/WAMU that these challenges are why the government waived enforcement of the 20% accessibility mandate.
"If we were to impose fines, fees, or the 20% rule," says the spokesperson, "the taxi industry would collapse in the District."
The spokesperson added that the agency plans to give Transport DC drivers who own their vehicles repair money through a federal grant beginning in 2023. Yellow Cab already provides a 33% rental discount for WAVs as an incentive.
Abdul-Mateen says cab drivers need stronger financial incentives, given that their income depends on the number of trips they can do. The median annual income for cab drivers nationwide is $29,310, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Spooner of Yellow Cab tells DCist/WAMU that company and city incentives are insufficient. The nature of the job – which requires empathy, patience, and training – also dissuades some drivers, he says. He says if D.C. is interested in fixing the problem, then the city should support companies to employ WAV drivers full time, rather than as independent operators.
"What is the city willing to do?" said Spooner. "If you allow taxis to disappear when giving Uber and everyone a free ride, unregulated, what if the regulated side died? What will happen to your wheelchair accessible program?"
After struggling to get a taxi, Kelly Mack and her husband take the bus downtown to a doctor's appointment. However, having fallen victim to the "ghost bus," she would like to have options.
Locals with disabilities are also empathetic to the challenges drivers face, so ultimately want the local government to step up.
Councilman Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who oversees DFHV, told DCist/WAMU it's ultimately the agency's responsibility to propose a budget to the Council if cab companies need more resources. He also said that the "long times are unacceptable" and that DFHV "needs to do a lot more" to incentivize drivers. "It's clear that what they're doing isn't working," he told DCist/WAMU. "There needs to be strong enforcement from the agency, and to the extent the companies are not in compliance, then there need to be stiff consequences."
Mack wants to see the D.C. government enforce some accessibility requirements. She says there needs to be "a middle ground" between doing nothing and withholding licenses. She encouraged innovation, like only providing new licenses to wheelchair accessible vehicles, because the 2012 legislation appears to have no teeth.
"I don't think what we are doing now is working." Mack says.
The day her Yellow Cab taxi was a no-show for her medical appointment, she took the bus. The bus is the most reliable and safe option, Mack says. However, having fallen victim to the "ghost bus," she would like to have options.
A recent visit to the hospital underscored that point. The hospital scheduled her a taxi because she was recovering from surgery and couldn't get home any other way. The cab that arrived couldn't accommodate her motorized wheelchair, so she tried to book through the two different cab companies listed on the DFHV website for providing WAV service. Both companies had only a few WAVs operating and a wait list of riders, she said.
"A 20 minute trip home took 2.5 hours with the wait from beginning to end," says Mack. "As you can imagine, I was exhausted by the experience as I needed rest for my surgical recovery—not stress and wondering if I would be able to get home."
This story originally appeared on DCist.com.