It was New Year’s Eve when Raquel Doyle, 27, got a shock from the dispatcher at a Winnipeg cab company.
Doyle knew that night was a busy one and decided to call the cab at 9 p.m. requesting a ride for 10:30 p.m. to get to a party.
“Good luck getting a cab at 10:30,” the dispatcher said. Then the phone went dead.
With winter and the shortage of buses, the number of cabs currently licensed in Winnipeg isn’t keeping pace with demand at peak periods.
According to Luc Lewandoski, spokesperson for the Winnipeg Taxi Alliance, a recent study hints at why Winnipeg has this apparent lack of taxis.
Lewandoski said the number of homes that go carless and the number of traditional transit users affects the number of licenses issued by the Manitoba Taxicab Board (TCB).
Unicity and Duffy’s taxicab companies formed the Winnipeg Taxi Alliance to fight against Uber and other ride-sharing companies potentially making inroads into Winnipeg. The Alliance wants to persuade Winnipeggers to rely on regulated taxi services.
“We have the same number of licenses since just after World War Two,” said Coun. Ross Eadie, who sits on the TCB. “Back then, people were over-served.”
Eadie said the board has received many applications for standard taxicab licenses, but there also needs to be a careful examination of how many taxis are necessary.
“If you base the market to the peak and those licenses are out there all the time when it’s not peak time, there’s a higher cost,” said Eadie. “Those vehicles need to make money. Otherwise, they are going to fail, and there won’t be enough service anyway.”
Uber, a ride-sharing app, is based in San Francisco, California. It lets people request rides and track their car’s progress in real time. Uber also allows driver and rider to see each other’s profiles and estimated fare beforehand.
The company has been controversial because its service is unregulated.
Despite its bad reputation among cab companies and drivers, some Winnipeggers think the introduction of Uber would help during peak times.
“Sometimes taxis can’t keep up with the number of people calling for a cab on certain days and times,” said Doyle. “However, I’m not sure if it’s safe and it’s definitely not fair since they don’t pay taxes to the government.”
There are indications the Uber-taxi controversy could become an issue unfolding during the upcoming April 19 provincial election.
The Liberal party in Manitoba has announced they will “pave the way” for ride sharing services, such as Uber. “Manitobans want to use their smartphones to access transportation,” the party said in a recent policy statement on its website.
— Rana Bokhari (@rana4manitoba) October 22, 2015
The introduction of Uber into the Manitoba market, however, involves issues going well beyond simply using smartphones to book a ride.
The administrator of Bring Uber to Winnipeg, a Facebook page dedicated to convincing locals to use ride-sharing service, recently posted that Uber allows him to pay for the services of his choice, not what the government wants him to.
Uber’s low cost ($0.80 per km) is possible because its drivers don’t pay for commercial insurance. This insurance, according to Lewandoski, is seven to eight times higher than what taxi drivers pay. Uber also doesn’t collect GST.
“If the Uber drivers were to pay for that insurance then they’re more likely not to be able to afford the drive because their income pay becomes so small that it doesn’t work out,” said Lewandoski.
He said there was a certain genius and evil to Uber’s business plan. While the government is still trying to figure out what it is and how to deal with it, Uber crashes into a marketplace and signs up as many drivers and users as it can.
“They recognize it’s political. It’s not a regulatory issue they have. It’s a political issue.”
Many provinces and cities in Canada are trying to work alongside Uber, but that’s just causing more anger among cab drivers.
“In some cities, the government is turning a blind eye to it. Where is the fairness in that? Where is the rule of law being applied to that scenario,” wondered Lewandoski.
An episode last December drew attention to how strongly cab drivers are against the service. During a Toronto protest, a downtown cabbie attacked an Uber car. He pounded on the window, tried to open the door and then found himself dragged 20 metres. Luckily, he was uninjured.
He told reporters he did it to “get a point across.”
To Eadie, aside from Uber not paying taxes and commercial insurance, the point is that Uber drivers play more to people’s economic privilege.
“Uber is getting all the good trips. Even in the North End. They’ll get the people who can afford to have a credit card,” he said.
Both Lewandoski and Eadie said the cab industry in Winnipeg has improved over the last few years, but there’s still room for efficiency. The companies now have added their own smartphone apps.
“A lot of people get upset when they call for a cab, and they’re stuck on hold with the call centre. Well that’s where the app is making a big difference,” said Lewandoski. He added 20 per cent of Unicity and Duffy’s’ business is coming in through their apps.
Lewandoski acknowledges people have expressed some dissatisfaction over taxi service in Winnipeg.
“The cab industry has been one that has had a bad reputation. Whether earned or not earned, that’s going to take some time to shake.”
He said improvements depend on customer feedback and has heard many people complain, yet they don’t call the company to let them know something was wrong.
“That’s going to take some training of the public as well. If you have a bad experience, please contact. They’ll follow up with that.”
Currently, there has been a few lawsuits in the U.S. where Uber drivers are trying to unionize.
Lewandoski said it will only take a judge to decide that Uber drivers are regular employees, and the company will have to pay them base fare rate and benefits.
“Their economics will become evil, and they might not even be able to provide that same rate that could beat the cab(s).”
Lewandoski said a Winnipeg Taxi Alliance poll not yet made public suggests 67 per cent of Winnipeggers still use the standard taxi service.