Tuesday, September 02, 2008

From the Globe and Mail website

Taxis needed, but who will drive?

Vancouver officials seek more licences, but industry says few are willing to do the job

Special to The Globe and Mail
September 2, 2008

VANCOUVER -- Vancouver is facing a shortage of cab drivers that will hamper efforts to improve taxi service in time for the 2010 Olympics.

That's the latest twist in this city's dismal taxi situation, as Vancouver tourism and city officials launch a new push to get more cab licences in preparation for the Games.

Letters are being sent to the province's Passenger Transportation Board from Mayor Sam Sullivan, Tourism Vancouver chairman Geoffrey Howes and Port Metro Vancouver president Gordon Houston urging the issuing of more licences.

The city's top bureaucrat in charge of Olympic planning adds the city needs better taxi service, something that was driven home to Dave Rudberg during his week in Beijing.

"Virtually every second vehicle there was a taxi," noted Mr. Rudberg, general manager of Olympic preparations. And it still wasn't enough.

Taxi companies say city organizations can call for all the new licences they want, but there aren't enough drivers willing and able to service any more additions to the fleet.

"Last year, they added 100 taxis plus vans [in Vancouver] but nobody wants to drive it," said Manjit Mander, the owner of Black Top, the second-largest of the four cab companies in Vancouver.

He said all kinds of factors are discouraging people from taking up cab driving. Drivers are required to go through a three-week training course that costs $600. Gas prices are up and business is down because American tourism is down. And, since the economy is booming in other sectors, people who might have turned to taxi driving before are getting jobs in construction and elsewhere.

"Our company got 33 new licences but I don't have enough drivers for them," Mr. Mander said. And it costs him $60 a day to pay the overhead for each car sitting in the lot.

The taxi issue is a conundrum for Vancouver, as it faces not only the Olympics but a growing tourism industry and a city-planning philosophy that encourages people to adapt to a more urban European lifestyle of compact neighbourhoods and no cars.

"We've actually got a double whammy when it comes to need," Councillor Suzanne Anton said. "We do not have enough for our traditional tourism business, like cruises. And now so many more people don't have cars."

The city, which is one of 21 municipalities in the region that each regulate cabs individually, had only 477 taxis licensed to operate until last June, when the transportation board authorized another 111. There are about another 650 licensed cabs in other municipalities in the region, but they are not authorized to pick up in the city.

Vancouver council set a goal of trying to have 720 cab licences in time for the Winter Olympics.

"More taxis in Vancouver are needed as part of our preparations for 2010," Mr. Sullivan wrote in a letter going to the board this week. "In addition to supporting transportation requirements during the Games, the months leading up to February, 2010, will feature a record number of special events all across Vancouver and an increased demand for transportation services downtown."

Port Metro Vancouver sent a letter last week, noting that cruise passengers waited up to two hours for a taxi the previous weekend.

The port's cruise marketing director, Greg Wirtz, said the waiting times have improved over the past year - but largely because the city had 100,000 fewer cruise-ship passengers.

A newcomer did apply for 57 new licenses this May, the same number the city had been hoping to add in 2008. But the company, which was going to call itself Pink Taxi, was turned down in July.

Board member David McLean, in a decision on the application by Rinat Miftakhutdinov of Larix Pacific Transit, said the company's business plan seemed to be incomplete.

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