Posts Tagged ‘taxi’
Back 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 didn’t read it then, can you look at it now – and especially the comment by MB, which talks his experience as a taxi driver.
I get all sorts of “pitches” in my inbox every day. Usually invitations to meetings in places far away (now if they included airfare and hotel I might even be tempted) or books to review. The invite to read the paywalled Nation has become a regular. On the whole my campaign to find links to free rather than paywalled sites has been lagging. I am pretty sure that most people find ways to get to content that I am not going to discuss. In this case I wanted to read today’s article about Uber and the Taxi Industry, just to see if it adds anything to what appears on this blog already. So I got the proffered free access behind the paywall for reviewers. The article in question is “adapted from a paper produced as part of the Future of Work Project, an inquiry supported by the Open Society Foundations.” So I rather thought that there might be an open source version of it somewhere. If there is, my Google technique needs to be improved.
Writing from a place where Uber is already established and basing the article on interviews with the people impacted – mostly taxi drivers – gives a good insight into possible outcomes here. John Liss used to drive a cab himself and his experience mirrors that of MB. In fact most of the article addresses the issue from one that was hardly touched on at the City Conversation.
The rapid growth of Uber has profound implications for both taxi drivers and the industry. Are Uber drivers earning full-time living wages? Are they protected from arbitrary or discriminatory dismissal? Can they support their families? What does this mean for the future of work?
Well, that’s all very well, but should there not also be some coverage of the needs of the users? Well there is this
But Uber has no requirement to serve the public. Indeed, there is a strong race, class and age bias as to who can utilize the service. You have to own a smartphone, which has an average cost of more than $500. Uber requires customers to pay with a credit card, cutting off those with no or poor credit. Until recently, the company had no wheelchair-accessible vehicles in Virginia, and continues to lack adequate services for the disabled in many places.
which I think does reflect some of the remarks I heard. There is also the issue of “surge pricing” which means drivers on Uber get to profit from times when there are peaks of demand – which was also discussed if not in the context of Hurricane Sandy.
The general conclusion seems to be that drivers for Uber have ended up earning pretty much the same as cabbies – and with all the attendant risks (pay up front, hope you get enough rides, no benefits) and once again the company that developed an app makes the big money.
As National Taxi Worker Alliance organizer Biju Mathew said, “It’s drivers and millionaires against the billionaires.”
So not different enough, I think to allow Uber in here even if they can be persuaded to play by the rules – that is to say the rules of society rather than their own. Which, according to Liss are stacked against the drivers.
But there is also the broader issue of the public interest. We need better alternatives to driving ourselves everywhere, and the current suite of options is not adequate. But simply relying on private sector initiatives and the market economy is unlikely to address these issues in a way that will satisfy anyone. In the same Nation there is a further examination of the “sharing economy” based on an examination of Uber and AirBnB.
“Now, despite over five years of official recovery, the sharing economy offers some people, like cab drivers, the prospect of real wage cuts, and others, like people with a spare bedroom, a way to supplement stagnant incomes. The sharing economy is a nice way for rapacious capitalists to monetize the desperation of people in the post-crisis economy while sounding generous, and to evoke a fantasy of community in an atomized population.”
So not much to cheer about there then. Actually I did notice something that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope.
“Uber’s a different story in New York, where all drivers have to be certified by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the cars are all regular cabs or car-service vehicles. Every Uber-hailed driver I’ve spoken with in New York likes the service, because it delivers more paying riders than they’d otherwise have.”
So it seems that Uber can work in a regulatory environment. It is also possible I think that the fleet of vehicles and the number of drivers could also be supplemented at need under such a system. In New York you see “car-service” vehicles all the time. They tend to be black, and are often upmarket sedans and SUVs as well as limousines. If you are staying in Brooklyn and you have an early morning flight out of Newark, they are probably the only practical way of completing the trip – short of sleeping overnight at the terminal. I do not know about Uber cars, but from these articles it seems that there are some attempts at both quality control and market segmentation.
Liss does give some insight too into how different cities and states have developed regulated taxi systems. What they seem to have in common is that having evolved as cars proliferated they then became stuck at the point in history when the regulation was imposed and have changed remarkably little since. It does seem that change is both necessary and desirable, but not that all attempts at control should be abolished overnight.
One of the more curious meetings I had when at Translink was with a lawyer. He had noticed numbers of people left behind at bus stops as he drove through Vancouver towards downtown, and he wondered if there was some way that people could be picked up to utilize the empty seats that were going the same way anyway. I had to disabuse him of the notion that the public transit provider – or the taxi industry – would welcome such an innovation. But this kind of ride sharing does happen. On the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco it has become established and officially recognized that people will wait at a point where single occupant cars can pull up and load enough people to get into the HOV lanes and share the cost of the toll. I somehow doubt that anyone has thought of this at the Port Mann. Hitch Planet hooks up people making trips within BC but does not seem, so far, to have tackled shorter trips with Metro. Jack Bell has expanded from simply organising commuter car pools with an app of its own which can also handle one time trips.
Liss seems to be mainly concerned about the people who work in the taxi industry, and I must admit that cab drivers in BC are – as in so many other places – at the bottom of the food chain. I had hoped he would also look at why Uber has become so popular with users. Yes it has sharply reduced the number of cab rides, but I think it must also have greatly increased the size of the market, and probably diverted some people from transit in the process. It also seems to me that in the longer term a company with Uber’s track record is bound to target the transit market and cream off traffic on the most productive routes. This is exactly what happened in Britain (outside London) when buses were deregulated. There is now a distinct gap between denser urban areas where buses are frequent and reliable, and rural areas where buses are almost entirely absent. Greater Vancouver could be very much at risk if the disrupters start to take an interest in transit. And that is not so unlikely in a future where the public authority has to compete with one arm tied behind its back.
So, no real conclusions other than I recommend reading the Nation articles if this topic held you long enough to still be reading. The current regulatory framework for taxis in Vancouver is far too biased towards the established license holders, and has resulted in a shortage of taxis – compared to other Canadian cities. It has also lead to people developing all sorts of ways of accommodating these rides. The trip diary survey shows that around 10% of car trips are to take someone to where they need to be – often with an empty return trip. The airport has even set up a “cell phone parking lot” to cope with one of the more obvious needs. Yes, the Canada Line helped, but lots of people need to get somewhere other than downtown. New technology does offer us ways to use the vehicles that currently stand idle for most of the time. And there is a real need for opportunities to make extra money for a lot of people. Yes it would be better if there was a higher minimum wage and a really good social safety net for those in need of supplementation to their incomes. Neither of those seem remotely likely in present day Vancouver, BC, Canada, so let us have a sensible conversation about how we can increase mobility in the region.
Here’s a place to start: Helsinki
“Passengers request a shuttle service on their phones and Kutsuplus computes the best way to get everybody where they need to go, based on real-time data. It also indicates how long it would take to complete the trip both with Kutsuplus and with other modes of transport.”
“[Uber] is an approach that works fine in America, where walking is rarely an option and public transport mostly nonexistent.”
Bits keep adding themselves to this story. I saw this link in the February 3 edition of The Direct Transfer (something you might want to consider subscribing to). It comes from Bloomberg and the story is extraordinary. Google is developing its own ride hailing service, in direct competition with Uber a company it has been funding itself.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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
Metro Vancouver is getting in on the act.
a recent report by Metro Vancouver staff shows that the taxi service level in this region averages one cab per 1,523 people.
Compare that to the average of one cab for every 930 people in large North American urban centres, one cab for every 709 people in Calgary or one cab for every 540 people in Toronto.
Toronto actually tackled issue of taxi licensing head on and created a lot more of them. That is why there are now more cabs there.
Gord Robson [Mayor] of Maple Ridge, has called for a major review of Metro Vancouver’ cab industry.
That led to a decision on Friday by Metro Vancouver to initiate a study on transferring licensing jurisdiction of our cab companies from the B.C. government to TransLink.
But Translink is now directly controlled by the Province. They appoint the Board – and are qualified solely in terms of the business experience. So they are unlikely to be any more sympathetic to public concerns then the vested interests of the business people who have invested a lot of money in securing one of the currently rare licenses. And why would the province scrap the Passenger Transport Board – which it could have done when it reformed the Motor Carrier Commission. Is it really defensible that Metro Vancouver have a different system of taxi licensing than the rest of the Province? If Maple Ridge – why not Abbotsford?
If you have not been here before the subject of taxis has been covered (just click the taxi link under categories). I will be very surprised indeed if the present government listed to Metro. I would even more suprised if any new taxi controlling organisation was more responsive to public needs than entrenched, politically well connected, taxi license holders.
Last year, Kevin Falcon was inconvenienced when a taxi refused to take him to Surrey. So he brought in the taxi passengers “charter of rights” which obliges taxi drivers to do what they have always been obliged to do under the law. Which has made not the slightest difference to anything.
Now Kevin seemingly has not had time to take a cruise this year, so presumably he is unaware of the two hour waits that those poor unfortunates have been forced to endure at the cruise ship terminals. So both (port CEO) Gordon Houston and (Mayor) Sam Sullivan are trying to put the pressure on the provincial Passenger Transport Board to increase the number of taxi licenses.
This is not a new issue by any means – at least ten years to my direct knowledge, and actually much longer as the records of the PTB and its predecessor the MCC will show. And there is no mention of that in this short piece. So there is no analysis here of why this situation has arisen or why it persists, or indeed what the impact is on people, who live here all the time and are not just passing through but have too much luggage to use an airport shuttle bus.
Taxis are actually used by people who cannot drive – often for a combination of physical as well as economic issues. They are very important to people with disabilities, who have to use them simply because handyDART is so inadequate. People on low incomes who cannot afford a car will often use a taxi to help bring home the weekly groceries. So taxis are not just the preserve of the wealthy, the business travellers at the airport or the late night drunks who are sufficiently compos mentis not to drive themselves home.
The reason why more licenses are not issued is that existing licences have a high market value – simply because they are in short supply. Often the license holder no longer needs to drive a taxi (an uncertain source of income at best) because they make so much from renting out their licences. And this group is very well connected politically, and the legislation under which taxis operate has always favoured them. Issuing more licences would devalue the existing ones, and that is an economic impact that the licensing scheme is designed to protect. And despite a long history of studies, nothing much is going to change, as long as some key constituencies depend on the ability of some groups to turn out the vote. That is a political reality that never gets mentioned in any of the reports produced on the topic, because it is too difficult for any politician to tackle head on.
There are a number of solutions – deregulation being the least likely and most disruptive. The one I favour and have argued for is the London solution. But because it is unique to London, no one else wants to try it. London black cabs are heavily regulated – but their numbers are not limited. Taxi drivers have to pass a very stiff test – it usually takes two years to qualify. And the taxis themselves have to meet very stringent standards. Fares are also regulated. But once you have a license and a licensed cab, you decide when you work. So the number on the street fluctuates, and after a while tends to reflect predictable changes in demand. It still means though that you cannot get a cab if it is raining or when the shifts change mid afternoon. And there is a now regulated but less stringent hire car license (also known as mini cabs) which tend to serve the suburbs, as wall as specific services for the disabled (although every back cab is also accessible).
Chances of something changing in time for the next cruise ship season? None. There is an election coming up which looks like it will be a close run thing. Not the time for basic reforms in politically sensitive areas. Maybe a few more licenses for vans – which while they look like they are for wheelchairs spend most of their time shuttling between the airport and the cruise ship terminal. The tips are better.
About bloody time too! All of these issues have been around for years. There is also a need to see something done to effectively enforce these rights, which is not helped by the current arrangements which divide responsibilities between the municipalities and the BC Passenger Transport Board. And of course, you should always start with the company operating the cab – make a note of the cab number, they should know who was supposed to have been driving at the time.
The passengers’ rights are:
- Be picked up and transported to their stated destination by any available on-duty taxi driver.
- Pay the posted rate by cash, or accepted credit card or taxi-saver voucher.
- A courteous driver who provides assistance, if requested.
- Travel with an assistance dog or portable mobility aid.
- A taxi that is clean, smoke-free and in good repair.
- Direct the route, or expect the most economical route.
- A quiet atmosphere, upon request.
- A detailed receipt, when requested.
What of course is amazing is that these basic customer service principles have to be spelled out, but each is indicative of a shocking record. Every time I read a report of s surprise on road inspection (and there are not nearly enough of those) dangerous cabs are ordered off the road. Refusal to accept taxi savers (used by the disabled as an alternative to handyDART when a van is not available), not helping passengers who need assistance to get in and out of the cab or to and from the front door, refusing to take guide and assistance dogs and refusing to go where the passenger asks to go were constant complaints that I saw at Translink. And just in case you think my complaints are just about the needs of the aged and disabled, I was refused a trip from the MoT office in Burnaby to the Helijet very early on in my career in BC. The driver said he wanted to go off duty soon and did not want to have to go to Vancouver where he is not allowed to pick up passengers. He took me to the SkyTrain at Metrotown – which was actually quicker and cheaper – but that is not the point!
I have long argued that the model we should adopt here is the one used in London – but hardly anywhere else! Getting a black cab license is very difficult. But it is not regulated by quantity as it is here (which gives rise to a market in scarce cab licenses) but by quality. The driver has to pass the “knowledge”- which takes at least two years of full time study and the vehicle must meet rigorous inspection and specification standards. It is by no means a perfect system, as minicabs are also needed to provide lower cost service in the suburbs. But it does mean that drivers can make a decent living – and work as and when they want to, which means more cabs appear on the streets at times when demand is high (but not when it is raining for some reason). And regulation is now under the aegis of Transport for London – and thus the Mayor.
The real problem here is that no-one who has a choice would want to be a taxi driver. If you do not own a license (and that usually requires a mortgage on your house to buy one) you have to rent one, and a cab, and pay for gas, insurance, dispatch fees and so on. And all that is paid up front before you pick up a single passenger. If a cab driver is lucky he might make minimum wage. Only the very privileged get the premium work – airport to downtown is the best, and produces the biggest tips.
The lack of cabs in this region has reduced the size of the market. People here have got much more creative about avoiding the need for a cab – because they have had no choice. And anyone who tries to expand that choice will come under fervent opposition from the existing licence holders, whose only interest is in protecting the value of their investment. Service to the public does not even get considered. Or the role that hired vehicles could play in reducing the need for car ownership.
UPDATE Feb 2 – Miro Certenig thinks drivers will find a way around the bill
I get worried when I find myself agreeing with Sun editorials. I passed on the original story since I did not want to give Kevin Falcon more attention than he deserves. A minister deciding to do something about a long standing problem because he was personally inconvenienced is, what I believe, a “soft target”. And it is not the Minister that is the problem. For whatever reason he at least sees the need to do something.
About time too. The taxi industry in BC has needed radical reform for many years and there have been several reviews in recent years, and I participated in most of them. But not much changed. And I could get into the reasons for that too, about small groups of well connected people who make a lot of money and are generous supporters of political parties (note the plural). But that just tells you why we are in a mess. And unlike the Sun, I want to talk about what we could do about it.
Taxis have to be regulated. Experiments with Hayek like deregulation elsewhere have been complete disasters and mostly reversed swiftly. Not only do taxi passengers’ rights need protecting so do taxi drivers’. Since they are not the ones making lots of money. If that were the case the taxi driver would not likely be a recent immigrant. Or someone well qualified to do something else but unable to break down the protectionist barriers put up by the self regulating professions.
But the regulation should not be directed at controlling the number of taxis. It is very difficult indeed to determine how many taxis are needed, since that number fluctuates wildly depending on the seasons, time of day and state of the weather. The present system prescribes one number all year round, and limits them to picking up fares in one municipality.
The Sun asks why that should be. And the answer is two fold. Firstly taxis are licensed on the recommendation of municipalities. Secondly, there is a fear that if taxis could roam freely picking up fares anywhere there would be glut in downtown Vancouver and the airport and none in the suburbs. Actually that is the situation here now – just not quite as extreme, but still observable. There is nearly always a long line of taxis waiting at the airport and the cruise ship terminal, and it is just about impossible to flag a cab on the street outside of downtown. And even if you do, they will almost certainly refuse to take you anywhere but the nearest SkyTrain station if you want a long ride.
But it is not just Important People who are inconvenienced. There is a whole community who depend on taxis. People who cannot drive themselves or cannot afford a car but need door to door service – some every day and some just to bring home the groceries. Some have disabilities, some are just infirm, many have very limited incomes. And I worked with a number of groups trying to get more taxi licences to meet the needs of this part of the community and got nowhere – well, not very far anyway. I was actually paid a fee by one taxi company to repeat the same evidence I had given in support fo a new service to provide shared rides for people with disabilities seeking treatment (turned down) to an application to buy more accessible minivan type taxis favoured by the cruise ship crowd as they carry more baggage (approved).
And I do not have space to repeat here all the evidence given by people in wheelchairs, or the blind, about the way they are treated by taxi drivers. Just to note that many who are on the list of essential service handiDART users will not accept a ride in a cab if one is sent instead of the handiDART van. And the lovely lady from the CNIB who stood at the side of the road waiting to be picked up by a booked taxi which just drove past her – because she has a guide dog.
The solution has been working in London since 1865. A metropolitan licensing system that is based solely on quality not quantity. Of cabs and drivers. Very stiff tests are prescribed by incorruptible officials for both vehicles and cabbies. Anyone can be a cabbie in London if they can meet the standards. Fares are strictly regulated, but entry into the market isn’t. And cabbies can work when they want to, and will enter and leave the market as demand rises and falls, working part time and having other businesses and occupations to fall back on.
It does not meet all needs. Shared ride services – mainly for hospitals and similar health and welfare agencies – are also needed. Minicabs – hire cars that must be pre-booked and cannot be hailed from the curb – do a lot of work too, but provide a lower level of service. All the black cabs are now accessible, very few minicabs are.
London cabs used to be regulated by the Home Office. Which meant over time many of the regulations were anachronistic. Recent reforms put cabs where they should be – under Transport for London and the Mayor. The Greater London Authority is what the GVRD and GVTA should be: directly elected to handle region wide services that are too big for the local municipalities which still exist to provide local services (in London 33 Cities and Boroughs) .
So Kevin gets another plane trip. That’s alright. I don’t begrudge him his business class seats and posh hotel. Just as long as he does something effective when he gets back. A passenger charter is a Good Start. But it is only scratching the surface. (He might like to revive the one I tried to write for the GVTA.) Since he wants to reform GVTA, perhaps he could step back a bit from his current efforts to demolish the last vestiges of local control, and have a real think about what might actually work in the public interest.
UPDATE Jan 31 0853 The Vancouver Sun covers this in their “latest news” section on line – so I presumed that it is not in the print version – but the smae headline is apparently on the front page. So I will no longer trust the “posted one hour ago” tag on those top of the page items. Perhaps it simply indicates a story that has been corrected or updated? Maybe a Canwest employee reading this can let me know.