Taxi Drivers: Vancouver’s Road Warriors

Taxi drivers are the ?stock characters – the ?crazies, the confidants – ?of countless movies and ?TV shows. Sometimes, most notably in the 1976 eponymous film by Martin Scorsese, they even get ?a starring role. Almost ?never is a cabbie’s day ?boring – and never has ?their work environment been more challenging ?than it is today.

Sore muscles, lack of sleep, deteriorating traffic and suffocating rules. All in a day’s work for Amrik Mahil.

Taxi drivers are the 
stock characters – the 
crazies, the confidants – 
of countless movies and 
TV shows. Sometimes, most notably in the 1976 eponymous film by Martin Scorsese, they even get 
a starring role. Almost 
never is a cabbie’s day 
boring – and never has 
their work environment been more challenging 
than it is today.

After pulling up in his cream-coloured Prius in Vancouver, Amrik Mahil apologizes for arriving late. The Black Top cab driver, whose day began at four in the morning, had landed a plum fare to Surrey that he couldn’t turn down. “I’m having a good day,” the lanky, studious-looking 53-year-old says with a beleaguered smile as I get in, “after a long time.”

We turn onto a thrumming section of Broadway, between Oak and Cambie. It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a sunny weekday and people are streaming back from lunch into the area’s office and medical buildings. Mahil, however, only has eyes for the occupational hazards along the street.

“You see that car there?” he says, nodding toward a cab dropping off a passenger at a bus stop. “That would be a ticket. If the bylaw officer were here, she’d take his taxi number and the ticket would come in the mail. The other day, I got a ticket for picking up a lady in her 90s who flagged me at the bus stop. What do you do? Tell them to walk a block away?” He then points out three cabs waiting at the Holiday Inn: “Who knows how long they’ve been hanging around there.”

As Mahil’s cab heads to Vancouver’s east side and then downtown, the problems mount: not enough space for cabs to wait near Main and Broadway, cabs lined up outside the train station, the bottlenecked traffic on the Dunsmuir Viaduct, a lack of right turns coming off the viaduct, the overflow of taxis lined up outside various downtown hotels, the paucity of spots to legally pick up fares in the West End. 


Taxi business in decline

With the Canada Line swiftly delivering travellers to the airport and the throes of a recession still playing out, Vancouver taxi drivers have even less reason to feel like kings of the road. For the average cabbie, Mahil says, business is down 30 to 40 per cent since the recession began in the fall of 2008. “When times were good, you could hit 30 rides a day,” he says. “Nowadays if you hit 23 or 24, you’re doing OK.” For his part, Mahil says he has gone from working five to six days a week.

Mahil is president of the Association of Pacific Taxi Owners, which represents three of Vancouver’s four cab companies. He has been fighting for measures from the city that will improve work conditions and service. But he knows it’s difficult finding sympathy for the cabbie’s plight from a populace that impatiently waits for a ride on a Friday night. For these people, taxis are a symptom of the city’s transportation woes. But if Mahil is to be believed, his industry might represent the solution.

The freedom of self-employment

To understand the plight of the cabbie in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, I spent close to a month speaking to drivers – sometimes with no notice – both in and out of their four-wheel workplaces.

For one of them, Bryant Ibbetson, driving a cab offers the freedom of self-employment. Ibbetson, 41, worked in tree planting and reforestation before a knee injury forced him to quit. He started driving a cab for Black Top & Checker Cabs Ltd. five years ago while completing an accounting certificate. “I did accounting for a few months,” he says, “and I couldn’t stand sitting in an office for eight hours.” Two years later, Ibbetson decided to hop into the taxi job full time. “You can stop when you want, eat when you want,” adds the father of two. “You can be your own boss, especially if you own a cab.” 

I meet with Ibbetson during a dinner break around eight on a typically slow Monday night. After driving his first trip to the convention centre at 6:30, he recounts, he picked up two tourists on the cab stand at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel who wanted to go to Southlands. “It’s like a $25 ride,” he says over Thai food. “On a slow night, it’s better to have longer trips. For me to do that downtown, I’d need two or three rides.” 

Figuring no one would flag or call for a ride in Dunbar on a Monday night, Ibbetson, who can choose which part of town to book his cab into on his computerized dispatch screen, decided not to linger in the area. Instead, he drove without a fare – “deadheaded” – back downtown, where he picked up a dispatch call half an hour before we meet. On Sundays and Monday nights, it’s these minor decisions, based on experience and a driver’s mastery of the roadways, that make the difference between a break-even day and a profitable one.

The Vancouver taxi landscape

There are currently 588 licensed taxis operating in Vancouver belonging to four companies: Black Top, Yellow Cab Co. Ltd., Vancouver Taxi Ltd. and MacLure’s Cabs Ltd. To add taxis to their fleets, these cab companies need to request and receive permits, which cost $150 a year, from the province’s Passenger Transportation Board. (City hall, which handles vehicle inspections, also needs to sign off on any permits.) The permits go to the cab companies, which resell them with an exponential mark-up, much like a franchise fee. For the going rate of over half a million dollars per cab, a driver can obtain a permit and become part-owner of a cab company. As part-owners, they are entitled to vote on the company board and receive a share of any joint profits, such as rental income from company-owned property or proceeds from new cabbies buying into the company. Unto itself, then, each cab is both a small business and a franchise.

Like many owner-operators, Ibbetson splits his permit fee and shares his cab with a partner; he works evenings because he hates traffic. On off days (cabbies can only work up to a maximum of 60 hours a week), he can lease his shift to another driver for a flat rate or a portion of his day’s earnings, which can range from as low as $150 to over $400 on a Friday night. On top of the purchase cost of his Prius cab and daily gas bills of between $15 and $25, Ibbetson’s monthly costs include loan payments of $1,800 for his share in the company (arranged through a bank, which requires a 30 per cent down payment); a dispatch fee of about $800; insurance payments of over $600; and car maintenance expenses of $200. 

The financial equation for cabbies became bleaker once the economy began to deteriorate two years ago. At Black Top, Mahil notes, business from big corporate clients, such as Air Canada and Vancouver Coastal Health, has declined significantly and companies that once sent “five people here for a convention are now only sending two.” Cabbies have also been hit by Carnival Cruise Lines’ decision to begin operating its Alaskan cruises from Seattle rather than Vancouver, taking away 23,000 annual tourists who collectively spent $18 million in the city. According to one industry insider, cabbies who used to make $300 to $350 on an average day are now barely making $150 to $200. “After gas and dispatch,” says the source, “they’re earning $80 to $90 for 12 hours’ work.” 


The impact of the Canada Line

Beyond a shaky economy, the thing cabbies point to most frequently as a hit to their wallets is the Canada Line. A boon for the 100,000 commuters who use it daily, the rapid transit line to YVR and Richmond has had a particularly harsh effect on cabbies with airport plates. (While any cab can drop off a passenger at YVR, only those with airport plates can pick up fares outside the arrivals terminal. There are 525 such plates, which cost $2,000 and are issued in a lottery by the airport.) “We used to wait an hour; now it’s two hours. Business has dropped by a third,” says Amar Dhaliwal, behind the wheel of his Delta Sunshine taxi as we depart the airport for downtown on a Saturday night. Dhaliwal, who has been driving a cab since 1992, operates one of the 955 Lower Mainland taxis licensed outside Vancouver and spends a lot of time going to and from YVR. “Being an immigrant in this country, I am responsible for so many other people,” he adds. “We don’t want to go to welfare.”

For many drivers, the saving grace in the current business climate remains weekends, particularly weekend evenings, the one time when cab demand still exceeds supply. While nighttime passengers can be in a better mood and tip better, dealing with inebriated clubbers does have its challenges. Kulwant Sahota – a driver for 17 years and president of Vancouver’s largest taxi company, Yellow Cab – recalls picking up an odd-looking fare one night at the corner of Nicola and Davie. “He sat next to me and put eight or nine stab wounds in my head,” he says. “I called my dispatcher, who called an ambulance.” Still, weekend work is too lucrative to pass up for many cabbies, who often make more than half their weekly income ferrying home revellers. 

What’s good for cabbies, though, isn’t necessarily good for passengers. With demand outstripping supply on Friday and Saturday nights, it often takes up to half an hour to get a taxi, and for many people that’s reason enough for the city to add more cabs to Vancouver streets. Critics point to a February 2008 CTV investigation that showed that Vancouver’s ratio of one cab per 1,100 people fell well behind Seattle’s ratio of one cab for every 880 people or Calgary’s ratio of one to 709. (Mahil suggests that Vancouver’s close proximity to the airport and its smallish downtown core are partly responsible for this unflattering comparison.) The same CTV report also suggested that cab drivers “cherry-pick” rides on weekends, refusing to provide service to the suburbs. 

“It’s only during a one- or two-hour window that there’s a supply problem,” explains Sahota, who assigns one of Yellow Cab’s dispatchers to work with Vancouver police on Granville Street, where the bulk of the city’s nightclubs are concentrated, to ensure that partiers have a ride home on weekends. “During the day, we have drivers sitting around for an hour and a half looking for a ride.”

Noting that 111 new taxis already came into service in Vancouver in 2007, Black Top’s Mahil suggests that public irritation over weekend wait times is a matter of perspective. “On a Friday night, people are happy to wait an hour to get into a nightclub or a restaurant,” he says, “but when a taxi takes 10 minutes, they get impatient and think it’s half an hour.” 

The taxi driver’s territory

The daily grind: Black Top’s Amrik Mahil says that business is down 30 to 40 per cent since the recession began in the fall of 2008.

Despite having more work on weekends than they can handle, Vancouver cabbies are fiercely territorial when it comes to out-of-town taxis, which are allowed to drop off riders from the suburbs but unable to pick up fares in the city. During the Olympics, this ban was temporarily waived to accommodate the influx of people – a windfall for suburban drivers such as Dhaliwal, who would be otherwise working in Delta or picking up rides from the airport. “Only downtown was good,” he says. “It saved my business.” 

Soon after the Games, however, the provincial Ministry of Transportation was once again clamping down on poachers, issuing a $1,150 fine to Surrey driver Gurmeet Sangha, in one instance, for picking up a female rider at Granville and Broadway one Saturday night in June. “I thought she was in a rush or maybe there’s an emergency,” Sangha told the Vancouver Province. “Creating that kind of situation is entrapment.” 

Predictably, the level of professional sympathy expressed towards Sangha (who didn’t respond to BCBusiness’s interview request) varies according to where the driver works. “I’m not saying he didn’t break the law, but it’s too much,” argues Delta Sunshine’s Dhaliwal, who’s been fined for the same reason in the past. Picking out-of-town fares “should be legal if there are no other cabs around. It’s good for us and customers too.” 

“[Sangha] is trying to get sympathy for something he knows is illegal,” counters Black Top’s Mahil. “[Out-of-town drivers] have different expenses from ours. In the past, when there were fewer taxis here, they could pick up and it wouldn’t impact Vancouver companies. Now business is going so slowly, it’s come to the point where they’re almost stealing.”

Taxi drivers vs. city hall

Against these new challenges, Mahil and Yellow Cab’s Sahota (who represents the only Vancouver company not belonging to the Association of Pacific Taxi Owners) are both fighting for breaks from city hall. 

Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs, the mayor’s point person on transportation issues, describes the city’s relationship with local taxi companies as friendly and mutually helpful, citing the industry’s co-operation during the 2010 Games as an example of flexibility. “We’ve been trying to make life better for the industry and riders,” he says. “The decision not to issue licenses [during the recession] lifted a huge cloud from the minds of all the taxi drivers and owners. Our issues became more administrative.” Meggs cites a recent change to the chauffeur’s permit law as an example of the city’s desire to lessen the “bureaucratic burden” on drivers. (While taxi companies apply for permits to operate cabs, chauffeur’s permits are obtained by drivers – who require 27 hours of “industry-related training” and clean driving and criminal records – to drive them.) Now, instead of going to police headquarters for an annual criminal check to obtain this permit, veteran cabbies only need to visit the police station every two years. 

As for concerns about ticketing, Meggs is less accommodating. “I haven’t been elected that long, but I haven’t had anyone ever thank me for a ticket,” he observes. “The law’s the law.”

Drivers such as Ibbetson think a few zoning changes could help make cabbies far more law-abiding drivers. “Every new condo should have a loading zone in front of it,” he suggests. “Seventy to 80 per cent of the flags I get I have to pick up illegally.”

For Sahota, who was raised in Britain, some of the economic damage wrought by the Canada Line could be lessened with sign­age at stations directing passengers to taxis, the way it’s done at London Underground stations. “If you look at the Canada Line station at Granville and Georgia, there are two parking spots where there could be taxis waiting for people,” he adds.

And yet city hall’s good-faith measures to help cabbies might ultimately be undermined by its plans to reduce the city’s roadways. For many drivers, a contentious issue has been Vancouver’s recent decision to build bike lanes, set off by concrete barriers, on the Burrard Street Bridge and Dunsmuir Viaduct (and, soon, Hornby Street) in an effort to boost the proportion of commuters cycling to work from the current 3.8 per cent to 10 per cent. 

“To increase the cycling mode share, we have to tap into a special target market: the people who are afraid of traffic,” says Lon LaClaire, Vancouver’s manager of strategic transportation planning. “Protected bike lanes make people feel safer.”


The Inside Track

Bus drivers – 
cabbie’s friend 
or foe?

When Che Florant comes across a cab on the street, he sees a comrade-in-arms. “In a lot of ways, we’ve got the same job,” says the Coast Mountain bus driver. “To some degree, there are feelings of goodwill.”

After working as a waiter, Florant has now been driving buses in Vancouver for almost five years. “It’s one service industry to another,” says the 39-year-old, whose route on the No. 7 takes him from Hastings-Sunrise through the downtown core to the Dunbar area. “I’ve never worked with so many former waiters and cooks in my life.” 

While he enjoys his job’s security and flexibility, he finds bus driving can be a heartbreaking experience. “When I’m in the Downtown Eastside, I can see 11-year-old kids eating out of garbage cans, mentally ill guys being choked by drug dealers.”

And though Florant has empathy for cabbies, he’s not sold on the idea of granting them access to bus lanes.

“Something definitely needs to be figured out for these guys, but I don’t think it will work,” he says. “From my own experience, taxis stop wherever they need to, and that’s the problem. They just throw on the hazards.” 

Of course, not all bus drivers have such a magnanimous spirit toward cabbies. Recently, on the No. 22 bus going down Burrard, there was an accident involving a taxi driver, which slowed traffic. The bus driver got on his intercom. “Everybody look to your right, ladies and gentlemen,” he told his passengers. “This is how the so-called ‘professionals’ drive.”

Downtown bike lanes

The bike lane on the Dunsmuir Viaduct, an artery that offers drivers an unimpeded shortcut from Vancouver’s East End to its business district, is especially irksome to cab drivers. “To go downtown from the Fraser Valley, we had one good option,” Mahil tells me as his car ascends the viaduct on-ramp. The blocked-off bike path forces cars to trickle across single file. “Pender has a bus lane; the rest of the traffic gets one lane to drive. Hastings gets congested with all the lights. For us the Dunsmuir Viaduct moved very well. The cycle lane creates a backlog, and the customer pays a higher fare.”

Reducing roadways, LaClaire says, is part of another strategy to manage single-occupancy vehicle traffic. It’s not just that cars spew carbon; they simply cannot be accommodated at current rates of population growth. By cutting down road space, the city is performing gastric-bypass surgery on the bloated, four-wheel beast.

While sound in theory, this strategy disregards the value of Vancouver cabs, including the 280 hybrid Priuses in service, as a tool for people who don’t drive at all. “I pick up a lot of people who don’t have cars,” Ibbetson says. “It’s cheaper for them to take cabs. Lots of areas are starting to get grocery stores, and people are taking cabs to get their shopping done.”

Neither Mahil nor Sahota claim to have a problem with measures such as the bike paths or the Canada Line, but both feel that taxis should receive privileges that acknowledge their role as mass transit. To that end, the issue both have stumped for is access to bus lanes, which Meggs supports. 

The big obstacle to bus-lane access is Translink, which wants that roadway all for itself. Drew Snider, public information officer for Translink, says the company opposes taxis in bus lanes because of “the impact that would have on bus service reliability. However, we have told the City of Vancouver that we would be open to looking further into the issue.”

LaClaire admits that much of the city’s transportation policy is based on a 1997 document that “glossed over” the role of taxis. In the next report, due this fall, he expects policy to reflect taxis as “an important part of a sustainable city that allows people to live without a car.”

Perhaps to gain the political traction required for changing the bus-lane regulation, taxis might first need to be reconceptualized along trendier terms – as, say, a private car-share that provides inexpensive service to the elderly and disabled. While the taxi lacks the novelty of car co-ops or bike sharing, it’s the one form of semi-mass transit that just about every Vancouverite has used.

As Amrik Mahil turns his car around to take me home, he sees a man in a suit attempting to flag him on West Georgia. He picks up the microphone of his radio, a seldom-used tool in the age of computers and GPS, and calls in the request so that one of the 54 Black Top and Checker cabs currently waiting in downtown Vancouver can hurry over to him.

“People think you’re just driving around; don’t you believe it,” says the husband and father of two. “Your muscles grow tight, you don’t sleep, you don’t exercise enough.”

It’s almost 3 p.m. and his shift has ended. He’s returning home to Surrey to see his wife, who works evenings at a restaurant. “If I don’t get home by 3:30, I won’t see her until late at night,” he says. 

Mahil shakes his head when I ask him whether his job has put a strain on his marriage. “Hopefully, nothing will affect my marriage,” he says. “She stresses out about my job. If I have a bad day, she’ll say, ‘I’ll have to get another job.’”

Driving home to see his wife, Mahil has yet another reason for traffic to move quickly.