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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Taxi Disruption

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The first City Conversation of the New Year featured Peter Ladner of Business in Vancouver and Mohan Kang of the BC Taxi Association. It was sparked by the recent attempt of Uber to set up in Vancouver, which was quickly squashed. However, Uber is not the only actor who wants to see something change in mobility provision here. Indeed many who favour change hope that there will be a better alternative to Uber.  There was someone video recording the meeting – and taking photos –  but I cannot see where on the SFU website these meetings get archived. Perhaps you can help me.

Yellow Cab 234

Peter Ladner opened by saying he was not an expert in the field but of course he has editorialised about it. He opened by talking about a recent trip to Grouse Mountain where he saw an empty bus, three idle cars2go and a sign for car sharing. He said that the waste of car seats in the line up of cars is absurd and could be easy to deal with through new technology. He cited the new Helsinki app, Moovel (Daimler) and Park Together as examples. Uber is “just the most prominent and the most ugly – ruthless, aggressive and unethical.” Uber is aiming for a monopoly and will also take aim at transit. “Do we need protection through regulation?” he asked. He cited examples like Hitch Planet and Airbnb to show how they have managed to build trust. He thought that increasing the use of ride sharing would have community benefits through better mobility access and “microjobs”. On the other hand with Uber there could be a race to the bottom.

Big Yellow Taxi by C4Chaos

big yellow taxi @ gastown by c4chaos on flickr

Mohan Kang explained that his association is a non profit that represents the 140 taxi companies that serve BC but not the four that serve downtown Vancouver. [Black Top, McClures, Vancouver and Yellow]  Uber represents a good idea but they have gone the wrong way about it. Taxis are not the only service that is regulated. He cited doctors and dentists as an example of a service that needs regulation, and deals effectively to restrain unregistered practitioners. Uber has no requirements of drivers other than a post 2004 four door car and a driver’s license. Taxi drivers must have training, a special license, much more insurance than other drivers (at a cost of $20,000 a year) and pass a course at the Justice Institute. They are also subject to a criminal record check before they can get a chauffeur’s license and must have their taxi inspected every six months. A new accessible van costs $45,000 and can only be operated as a taxi for six years before it is replaced. He said the industry is effectively subsidizing accessible taxis. Uber will not provide services to those with disabilities, without cell phones and credit cards and will not take cash or taxi savers. “If we don’t need regulation for taxis, then we don’t need it for day cares – or building construction.” Regulation is necessary to protect the public. Taxis by their constant presence on the street save lives and can report incidents to the police as they happen. BCTA has been part of the Amber Alert system for ten years.

The first participant said that she would not feel comfortable getting into a stranger’s car, but felt safe in a taxi. The second said that he had used Uber in Los Angeles for seven rides and felt that the system was safe and convenient. He compared their prompt and efficient service with a recent experience in Vancouver when a taxi took 25 minutes to arrive – and showed him 200 ride requests waiting on the system. This was, of course, a Friday evening.

I was the third participant and rehearsed some of what I have been writing on this blog on this topic. Mr Kang responded to the discussion by stating that the BCTA has never contributed to any political party. He also said that the Passenger Transport Board does not show any favour to the industry and has issued additional licenses in recent years ( e.g. Garden City cabs in Richmond). He was asked are more cabs desirable? Is the industry over regulated? Could taxi fares come down? He responded that the fares are determined by the Passenger Transportation Board [using a cost of service index]. “Prices cannot be lowered”. Recent changes permit some suburban cabs to pick up in downtown Vancouver on Friday and Saturday night. But at 02:00 on Saturday (when the bars close) the peak in demand for cabs cannot be met economically by adding more taxi licences – as the service is not needed at other times. Surge Pricing on Uber was said to deal with this problem by encouraging more cars to come into the market at that time. Regulations currently forbid suburban taxis that have come into Vancouver from picking up, and have to return to their home municipality empty.

Hilary Hennegar of Modo said that the taxi industry is a public service which has been important to supplement accessible services after HandyDART was cut. She felt that there were better examples than Uber such as Seoul, South Korea that has booted Uber and set up their own system. She thought that a co-operative approach was possible rather than a predatory one. Vancouver should develop its own sharing economy.

McClures taxis at Granville Island

Benn Proctor has produced his Masters’ Thesis which is an unbeatable source of information on “Assessing and Reforming Vancouver’s Taxi Regulations”. It was observed that each car share takes ten cars off the road: car share reduces car ownership.

There were concerns over the use of the data collected by Uber which could create issues over privacy. Boston MA is using Uber data to study trip making.

Michael Geller stated that “the taxi system is broken”. He thought the value of taxi licenses on the secondary market reason enough for intervention. While the BCTA may not make political donations, taxi company proprietors (i.e. license owners) are very generous to all candidates. [As a reality check I can state authoritatively that no taxi company offered me any money when I was a candidate. Perhaps that is just an indication of how realistic taxi operators were about my chances of election. ]  We are moving to a society where young people do not have driver’s licenses let alone own cars. We have to have more choices, and the taxi industry must address their ridiculous 4pm shift change. The more we can reduce the need to own a car the better we will do.

Peter Ladner pointed to the mytaxi app and suggested that the automobile industry is ‘waking up’ to the reality of lower car ownership.

Michael Anderson stated that this meeting had been “City Conversations at its best”.

taxi by K. Yasuhara on flickr

taxi by K. Yasuhara on flickr

Somebody sitting near me was talking to the person next to him, before the meeting began, about shared ride vans in Africa. I had heard about these but this morning someone tweeted the link to a piece on Next City on the tro-tro in Accra, Ghana. This includes commentary from Uber

Shared ride, legal and unregulated vans also operate in a number of US cities, where conventional transit and regulated taxis are both inadequate. There is also a trial ride share program at SFU.

The Vancouver Sun reports that the additional weekend taxis so far authorised have made no difference but even so the four Vancouver companies have managed to put them on hold – again – and seem likely to continue to block any efforts to reduce waiting times on Friday and Saturday nights.

Read Michael Geller’s take on this meeting in the Vancouver Courier

February 4 – some more data on the quality of taxi service in Vancouver

Written by Stephen Rees

January 15, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Transportation

Tagged with , , ,

9 Responses

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  1. “Do we need protection through regulation?” Much regulation could be eliminated if incorporated companies did not have limited liability. Read my piece here and then do a thought experiment.

    Marc Erickson

    January 16, 2015 at 2:12 am

  2. I read your piece on Open Salon. I cannot comment there as I need to register for the site, and registration is closed. I think it is very unlikely that the current beneficiaries of the existing system will voluntarily agree to dismantle it. And, as I said at the meeting, I do not see any politicians with the intestinal fortitude to take them on.

    Stephen Rees

    January 16, 2015 at 7:57 am

  3. It’s perfectly understandable that the public desires greater choice in mobility, and the frustration when the taxi supply is short during peak demand periods. We already see this with transit. Where I lose my patience is when the whiners go on and on about the “exorbitant” taxi fares on one hand, then demand that taxis be provided on every street corner 24/7. I challenge the complainers to name one wealthy taxi driver, or one owner who would happily borrow tens of millions to double or triple their fleet to meet the three or four hours a week demand is outrageous.

    The fact remains that it’s a tough gig, and most cabbies today are from immigrant families because Euro-Canadians have long since moved on in their lives and stepped up a few rungs on the career ladder, gladly vacating the menial lower level to those just starting out. One day the children of cabbies and cleaners will be our professional class, leaders and decision-makers. The taxi trade is a key indicator of the ever-changing cross section of Canadian society; just because they’re not banks doesn’t mean they do not represent the economy at its foundation level.

    I drove cab full time for two years in another large Western Canadian city in the 70s on both the day and night shifts. Back then cabbies were mostly young white males. Many were students earning their tuition or writers/musicians/artists getting by. There is lots of literary fodder in driving cabs, believe me. The occasional loner was working undercover. But the majority of drivers were and are ordinary working people.

    I put on about 200,000 km a year, yet earned well less than minimum wage. I shared a car with one other driver where we each took a 12-hour shift seven days a week. Most owners were former drivers who had paid their dues and, unlike the drivers list accounting for a high turnover, rightfully earned a steady income through the leases. You had to give a week’s notice to take time off to ensure another driver on the owner’s roster can fill in. We were responsible for paying the owner a weekly lease, filling the tank to the brim at the end of your shift (you do NOT short your co-driver under any circumstances) and ensuring your licence was updated. Everything earned after clearing these costs was yours until you filled in your tax return and invariably attached notarized copies of your trip sheets in case the Revenue Canada auditor called, thinking that cabbies are closet nouveau riche. What remained after all that in reality was a pittance. The local taxi commission set the rates and all of us unanimously felt they were set far too low for the amount of bullshit and low pay we had to endure.

    Robert Scorsese’s movie Taxi Driver, which launched Robert de Niro’s and Jodi Foster’s careers, came out during my stint as a cabbie. I read the book by Paul Schrader during the slow hours of the night shift and felt he got it pretty well bang on. It was a great movie artistically and in my view accurately portrayed the job, especially the wheels turning and the meter ticking away the thousands of hours punctuated by an enormous array of personalities who have their 15-minute chapter in the story of not necessarily fame in your back seat.

    There were perfect days when I cleared over $100 and the passengers were exceedingly friendly. Christmas Day was usually like that. But I can count those days on two hands in the context of over 700 shifts. I drove the day shift for a year and found the traffic was too stressful for the pay. There’s nothing like at least three customers a shift yelling at you from the backseat because they’re late and blaming you for roadworks, traffic jams, the weather, their failed marriage. I drove the night shift in my second year and my opinion of the human race went into the deep sub-basement for a long time. I saw blood and other bodily fluids, guns, knives, an array of drugs that even today would comprise a major bust (coke prior to crack), and an expanding universe of drunkenness, all in one back seat.

    During my two years two cabbies were murdered, about 10 were violently assaulted and required long stays in hospital, too many were robbed at knifepoint, and every last one of us were ripped off at least twice a week when passengers bolted without paying. I learned to keep the microphone ready in my lap to do a quick Code Red if necessary, and a tire iron on the floor between the door and the seat. I never had to use them, but I can remember three trips when I was scared enough that thought I may. I kept the barest minimum float in a coat pocket, and hid what little extra cash I made in my sock until I had a trip close to home where I could quickly drop it off. Tips to cabbies may seem common, but it’s shocking how many of the Armani suits would wait angrily for 25 cents change while the shift workers at a meat packing plant or Denny’s tipped generously with a smile.

    One incident stands out. Late one night a driver had his throat ripped open by a large dog which he reluctantly allowed in the cab after being persuaded by the passengers. You could plainly hear that the dispatcher, who heard everything from that driver’s open mic during the event, was extremely upset. When requested, all of us stopped work for several hours and flooded the neighbourhood streets near the locus of the incident with 30 circulating, radio-linked cabs to assist the police in tracking down the passengers who ran off with the dog. The dispatcher assigned us to a separate channel while this was happening. One of the passengers was caught largely by our effort to narrow down their hiding spot, thanks to one observant driver, to under a back yard deck and then crowding the alley and neighbouring street with our cars to prevent his escape until the police arrived a minute or two later. I never heard what became of the dog or passengers, but the cabbie almost died, then lived on after a lengthy recovery presumably with deep physical and psychological scars. I also know the owner of that taxi junked the car and cut his losses when the police finished their investigation, and after he took one look at the interior.

    The antithesis to those adrenaline moments were the hundreds and hundreds of hours each year sitting at taxi stands and idling in dark parking lots waiting for fares to materialize. It is very disheartening to come home from a 12-hour shift day after day having cleared on average only two bucks an hour. This is what I think about when the complainers bitch about there being “not enough” cabs on the road (especially at night) and “paying too much” when they successfully hail one. Their attitude is similar to those who think building 10-lane bridges and Atlanta-style freeways is the answer to rush hour congestion. Should the cab fleet be doubled (or outfits like Uber allowed to enter a constrained market with hundreds of unregulated cars and poor standards) then I predict cabbies will be forced out en masse and the situation will deteriorate. Taxis and drivers are quite heavily regulated; Uber would need the same level of treatment to ensure not just fair play, but the upkeep of safety and labour standards in an atmosphere of rampant competition over relatively poor earnings.

    When I take a cab today I appreciate the door-to-door private service and have absolutely no problem with paying for it. Taxis are not a public service. Even then, taxis are a bargain compared to car ownership. Do the math. I always be sure to tip the driver well, knowing that s/he has a family to support and that it’s not a great job. Nine out of 10 will help with my bags and will earn a bigger tip. Once in a while a cabbie will drive recklessly (most drive fast as a function of driving 12 hour shifts) and treat you with indifference and therein sacrifice their tip. But I’ve found most will respond with extra care and friendliness when I treat them with respect and let them know we have much in common even though our backgrounds and heritage may today be completely different. Our GDP is not just created in boardrooms and offices and on factory floors. The street is another place where our nation is built, where the gears of the urban economy grind on.


    January 19, 2015 at 11:55 am

  4. @MB I really think you should start your own blog. I know I would follow it.

    Stephen Rees

    January 19, 2015 at 2:26 pm

  5. Me too!


    January 19, 2015 at 2:52 pm

  6. Stay tuned.


    January 19, 2015 at 4:35 pm

  7. @Stephen Rees: ” I think it is very unlikely that the current beneficiaries of the existing system will voluntarily agree to dismantle it….I do not see any politicians with the intestinal fortitude to take them on.”

    I agree. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

    Marc Erickson

    January 19, 2015 at 6:44 pm

  8. Thanks so much MB. I don’t think most of us knew what the industry was really like from the driver’s seat.

    I think many of us believe taxis are expensive because so many of the costs of owning and operating a car are lump sums, paid and quickly forgotten. If we had to stick money into a slot every time we got into our cars our perspective would change dramatically.


    January 20, 2015 at 6:09 pm

  9. […] in the middle of the month I reported on a City Conversation which looked at the issue of the taxi shortage in this region, and the reaction to Uber. If you […]

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