Dear PoPville – Meaning of Top Taxi Lights


“Dear PoPville,

I work in Dupont Circle and my eyesight is about 20/150 (not legally blind, but not correctable beyond that), and live in Brookland. While attempting to flag a taxicab, I went to a taxi that had their light on, but although empty, the driver said he couldn’t take me to Brookland. A man on the sidewalk came up to me after to tell me that the taxi’s light said it was not available, and I shouldn’t approach such cabs. Is it true that taxis leave their light on, even though they are not available? If so, does it make sense that taxis would leave a bright light on, even though they cannot, or will not, pick up passengers, when it would be less confusing to just turn the light off? Was the man that came up to me misinformed, and if not, how is someone without great eyesight able to tell when a cab is actually available?”

Hopefully when all the cabs switch over to the new lights (as you illustrated in the photo above) when the light is lit it will mean the taxi will be for hire.

36 Comment

  • SAME thing happened to me yesterday twice! I swear that is new. I commented to several drivers when the new light came out how much better it is, I can always tell if a taxi is available coming down the street even with the sun shining (in the past you could not see if a light was on), and when there was no light I could easily tell they were off duty. Now the light say OFF DUTY which you can’t read till it is almost up on you, I agree, just no light when you are off.

    • yes! the “off duty” light is just stupid. Gives me false hope all the time.

      • +1. What’s the point of having a lit-up message that you can’t read at hailing distance??
        Whoever came up with this system did not think it through very well.

      • ah

        +1. If it says something other than “Taxi for Hire”, then the color of text should be red rather than yellow (which I realize may not help certain color-blind sections of the population).

    • I see the frustration, but the light stays on with “Off Duty” and “On Call” for a good reason: so that you know that the empty cab is passing you by because it’s unavailable, not because the driver doesn’t want to pick you up. It’s one way of enforcing anti-discrimination laws.

  • I’ve seen some that are lit up, but say “Taxi On Call.” I think this is what happened.

    Not really sure what “Taxi On Call” means, but it’s different from “Taxi For Hire,” so maybe that’s what it is. With the old lights, it was simple: on means I can take a far. Off means I can’t.

    • On Call probably means someone called for a cab, and it is going to pick someone up.

    • Or, more accurately, off means I probably won’t take a fare, on means I can take a fare as long as you’re going to Dupont.

    • I’ve never seen D.C. cabs consistently use the old-school lights to correspond with whether they are taking fairs.

      • +1. I never saw any correlation between light/availability either.

      • Yeah, in the past, the lights were always on and would never stop when flagged. And sometimes cabs with their lights off would stop for me. It was like the lights meant the reverse of every other taxi system in the country.

  • According to the most recent version of the taxi dome light regs (DCMR 31-605):

    “The LED portion of the Dome Light shall display “Taxi For Hire” at all times when the taxicab is available for hire and the LED portion of the Dome Light shall go “dark” when the taxicab is not available for hire because the taxicab is carrying a passenger, is on call, or is off duty not intending to take on passengers.”

    This suggests that changing the message to say “Taxi On Call” or “Taxi Off Duty” or some other message is not compliant, right?


  • Just a general comment – I hate taxis. I rode them for years, and dealt with it. Last night, I got in a cab, and said I would need to use my credit card; I had to get out of that cab because his machine “didn’t work”. Then I got in a second cab, same issue. I called an uber x, and I was home safely and for cheaper in 6 minutes (across Porter late at night – I wasn’t going to walk). Why do I even bother with cabs anymore…what is the benefit of even having cabs on the street anymore?

    • I like the Hail-O app too. I’ve used it on a couple of occasions and it has been much better than hailing a cab off the street.

      • Hail-0 is great! have had nothin but positive experiences so far…

      • +1 to this. You get a cab, where you can definitely pay by card, and you have the driver’s name for safety too. And they know where they are going (I can’t say I’ve had the same experience with uber x).

        • SERIOUSLY. i use uberx because it’s cheap and convenient but they never have a clue where they are going.

    • Don’t tell them you are using a credit card. Just get in and when you are at your final spot, say you are paying by CC. If they won’t accept it, please call the police and the police will be more than happy to explain to them they either take the CC or face a HUGE fine for not taking it.

      • I wish that there would actually be some enforcement of the cabs having broken or no credit card readers, but I would not hold my breath. Did you see the recent article in the Post involving Councilwoman Cheh’s daughter? The machine would not work, the daughter (who is a lawyer herself) said that she was going to get cash, but planned to report the cabbie to the DC Taxicab Commission. The driver locked her in the cab and drove a few blocks (essentially kidnapping her) before calling 911 and reporting that he had a rider that would not pay. Cops did nada, and the Taxicab Commissioner said that the driver “may” be suspended. I was surprised to learn somewhat recently that the Commissioner is supposed to work for the people of DC, not for the cabbies. Based on his comments to the media, I thought he was their representative!

        • Can someone confirm the following:
          All, or most, cab companies have the same ultimate owner.
          This owner (or small conclave) has captured the regulator
          They are a very important donor to DC local elections.

          which would basically mean that We The People are basically screwed.

        • Trust me, they are trying to get these bad apples. I know cops and DCTC inspectors write thousands of dollars in fines daily for violations. I can’t tell you the number of times I have gotten to my final destination and the cab driver says the machine doesn’t work only he only takes cash. Know the law, be ready to call the police and PLEASE report it to DCTC.

          FYI, DCTC just created and filled the Chief Inspector Role which should help provide even more enforcement.

          Remember they must use the CC machine in their cab, they cannot use Square from their phone, you can remind them that too.

          If you have an issue with an officer not taking action you need, always ask for a supervisor.

    • I agree that D.C. cabs suck, but that doesn’t mean that they should be eliminated — rather, it means that the regulations should actually be enforced.
      Not everyone has a smartphone, or the extra $ to pay the difference between cab fare and Uber fare.

      • UberX is cheaper.

        • I love UberX, but I know some people who just don’t trust the fact that it uses unlicensed drivers.

          • hail-0, y’all. same pricing as regular cabs, with a $1.50 surcharge. give it a shot. drivers are just regular cabbies who have been contacted for the pickup through hail-0.

          • sarah, sounds like I’ll just get to pay more for the same crappy DC cab service. What’s the benefit? Knowing that a cab is on its way? Anything else?

      • UberX comes out about the same as a taxi fare for most rides, except with UberX the tip is already included.

    • One benefit is that not everyone who takes a cab has a smart phone. Another is that not everyone who needs a cab has a credit card. Yet another is that not everyone is able to budget for Uber’s surprise “demand” pricing. There are major downsides to taking cabs in DC — but there are also some disadvantages and/or limitations with using and relying on Uber.

    • lol I got in a cab last night too and the driver (I swear I saw him in Captain Phillips) said he could take cash only or I had to get out, his CC machine was not working. I found that odd as the monitor was flashing adds and had “connected” in the bottom left hand corner. The DC Taxi drivers will always be corrupt as a group, a few good apples in a barrel of rotted waste.

  • “Taxi for Hire” means you should be able to hail a cab.
    “Taxi on Call” means it may be going to pick up an Uber ride or was dispatched.
    “Off Duty” Cannot pickup a fare, it is off-duty (if it picks up a fare, driver faces BIG fines)

    When the Front of the Dome just shows the Taxi Number it has a fare. Back of the dome always JUST shows the taxi number.

    If dome light is off (nothing is lit up) the taxi is out of compliance and faces a fine.

    Now this taxi driver when he stopped, did he ask where you were going? That is called soliciting fares which is a big fine. An even bigger fine is “Refusing to Haul” which is also what he did it sounds like.

    Please please please make complaints with the taxi number to DCTC so they can track this information.

  • Perhaps the confusion being expressed here is that the Taxi Number is always lit, regardless. So if you have trouble seeing, from far away, it might appear the cab is available.

    Overall, I’ve found the change quite helpful and have found it easier to not look like an idiot waving frantically at any cab in hopes the light is just not working correctly like the old days. I believe the on/off duty stuff is now handled automatically by the computer in the car.

    The “on call” part seem stupid, so perhaps that was the issue here. I don’t know why they wouldn’t just have it turned off for that.

  • all i know is i watched a cab trun his light off a block before reaching me as he saw me trying to catch his attentioin
    this is on Cap hill

  • Except that the NYC cabs have the tiny “off duty” lights that can be illuminated on either side of the cab number, and sometimes those are hard to see from a distance as well. There is also apparently a difference between off duty w/ number and off duty w/o number, as the first might still take you to your destination if it was in the same direction they are headed, and the second won’t stop for you regardless. I think NYC cabs are legitimately miles ahead of DC, but even there the lights could be very confusing, particularly if your eyesight isn’t great.

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