Each rollDC minivan is outfitted with a special back-door ramp and hooks to secure a wheelchair or electric scooter for a cab ride anywhere in town. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board purchased 20 vans, with Royal Cab and Yellow Cab of D.C. each operating 10 of them.
The taxis, some of which have been in service for more than a year, provide options that paratransit services can't, riders say. MetroAccess, Metro's shared-ride service for persons with disabilities, requires a call a day in advance and keeps to a strict schedule. With the wheelchair-accessible taxis, riders can come and go as they please, said Richard Devylder, a senior adviser for accessible transportation to the U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"Paratransit is very limited. They're on a schedule," said Devylder, who was born without arms or legs and has used the cabs since 2010. "Whereas taxicabs are used to doing things on the fly and they're used to picking people up and changing times and changing locations without any problems. So it gives people with disabilities a lot more flexibility."
Grants totaling $1.2 million from the Federal Transit Administration and the D.C. Taxicab Commission helped fund the new taxi service. The grants helped pay for the vehicles and to train taxi drivers to properly operate the modified minivans' equipment.
Ridership has steadily climbed as vans were added to the fleet. In March, rollDC riders took 349 trips. Saleem Abdul'Mateen, who's been driving a rollDC taxi for Royal Cab since last summer, said the service is growing in popularity, and already has several loyal customers.
"I was kind of surprised myself by where people want to go," Abdul'Mateen said, describing recent trips to the 930 Club and Mother's Day lunches. "We'll probably exceed the demand for 20 cabs when people get to know about it."
The startup funding from the grants runs out in July 2012 so officials must secure additional funding to maintain operations and expand the service, possibly from another federal grant.
"This is a great start, but there's still more work to be done," said Bobby Coward, an accessability advocate in D.C. who rides an electric wheelchair. "Twenty cabs is great, but we want more."