WASHINGTON (WUSA9)--In the District of Columbia, whose population is 50 percent African-American, many black residents struggle to hail a cab. Some neighborhoods rarely see a taxi. The alleged discrimination happens every day in plain sight.
In an attempt to provide vehicle-for-hire services in underserved neighborhoods, the D.C. Taxicab Commission unveiled a plan on Thursday to license "courtesy vans" that would operate in up to five neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, each capable of picking up seven passengers (or up to six wheelchairs) and taking them to destinations within their neighborhoods for a fixed price.
"We have to get a definition of the boundaries that these vans would operate in," said D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman Ron Linton at a news conference at the Wilson Building.
"They would not go outside those boundaries. If people need a ride that would went beyond that service area, they would be dropped off at a Metro, at a bus stop, or a taxi stand."
The vans would be licensed like regular taxis, independently owned and operated by the drivers who purchase them. The hope is residents of the underserved neighborhoods would show interest in becoming a driver.
"They'd simply roam the defined district and offer rides at a fixed price, not a meter but a drop box, to go two blocks or 25 blocks," said Linton.
The push for a special intra-neighborhood van service is a concession by the taxicab commission that many of the roughly 9,000 licensed drivers in Washington will refuse to serve certain neighborhoods, particularly poorer, minority enclaves east of the Anacostia. By law D.C. cabbies are required to serve the entire city.
"We cannot compel an individual and say you must spend so many hours driving in certain neighborhoods. We have to find ways to induce vehicles to service people in those neighborhoods. That is what we are addressing here," said Linton.
The contrast in service between downtown D.C. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Anacostia, for instance, is striking.
During the day you can hail a cab in a minute or two on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest outside the Wilson Building where Linton addressed reporters Thursday. On MLK Ave. you may not even see a cab, residents said.
"It is a travesty, but at the same time you see what is going on in Missouri and different parts of this country," said Ward 8 resident Benjamin Brown. "It lets us know that even though it is 2014 people still feel a certain type of way about us of color. And it's shame."
In interviews with WUSA 9 cab drivers denied discriminating against black passengers. Taxi driver Niiteiko Kweifio said he will take people anywhere they want to go, but he has colleagues who are afraid to go east of the river.
"I guess they are afraid of the area. Things happen in that area more than in downtown, like upper Northwest. But things happen over there, too," he said.
Chairman Linton said the courtesy van service could be ready to go next summer, pending public hearings and approval by the D.C. Council and the mayor.