After a computer glitch shut down SkyTrain service yesterday, the Vancouver Police Department announced on twitter that taxi enforcement would be suspended until midnight.
— Vancouver Police (@VancouverPD) July 21, 2014
Upon reading that tweet, some likely asked what is taxi enforcement and why is it being suspended? But the question we should all ask, is why enforce in the first place?
The provincial regulator, the Passenger Transportation Board, has carved Metro Vancouver into eight distinct boundaries. In each area, only certain taxis can take passengers: Garden City Cabs can only pick up in Richmond, Bonny’s can only grab passengers in Burnaby, and North Shore Taxi can only collect in (you guessed it) North Vancouver.
The problem with boundary rules is that Metro Vancouver taxi trips often end in an area where the taxi is forbidden from picking up a new fare. A 2011 report by the Vancouver Taxi Association found that on weekend nights, 44 per cent of passengers picked up in downtown Vancouver had suburban destinations.
That means nearly half the trips taken by four Vancouver taxi companies (Yellow Cab, Black Top, MaClure’s and Vancouver Taxi) will end in an area where they are barred from picking up new passengers.
Because of this, drivers often refuse suburban trips despite the fact that it is illegal to do so. A report commissioned by the Vancouver Taxi Association found that in April 2011, 21 per cent of riders were refused trips. When the Taxi Association looked at the issue again in October 2011, the numbers barely budged, with 18 per cent of riders still facing refusal.
While it may be illegal, it is hard to blame Vancouver taxi drivers for refusing a ride out the suburbs. They already pay sky-high lease fees to the taxi companies, about $200 plus fuel costs, just to access a Friday night shift. Why accept a trip to Surrey if regulations force you to return empty?
If a suburban taxi does pick up a passenger while in Vancouver, the Vancouver Police are normally there to enforce regulations.
Consider Project Gypsy, a three-day sting operation in December 2012 that issued 77 tickets to suburban taxis for making illegal pick-ups. Is preventing mutually beneficial trips from occurring the best use of police resources?
Imagine the outcry if Translink implemented a similar boundary policy for buses. Any bus leaving Vancouver for a suburban destination would need to return empty. Bus productivity would plummet and suburban riders wanting a ride into Vancouver would see “Sorry, Not-In-Service” buses pass them by.
Aside from wasting the time of passengers and drivers, forcing a taxi to return home empty results in more greenhouse gas emissions per-trip. Not exactly a policy synonymous with becoming the “world’s greenest city.”
The environmental harm is more acute when we consider the role the province plays in the limiting the total number of taxicabs in the region. That is because taxis are actually a plus for environment. When taxis are readily available and reasonably affordable it encourages people to drive less. Instead of owning a car – they walk, bike, ride the SkyTrain (when it’s operational) and take taxis when needed.
But regulators have only licensed 1,571 taxis in Metro Vancouver which works out to 0.64 taxis every 1,000 Metro Van residents.
That’s about half as many as for other major Canadian cities. Toronto has (1.17 taxis per 1000 persons); in Montreal it’s 1.34; Ottawa 1.24; and Edmonton 1.37.
To put it in perspective, consider Calgary. That city has 1.4 million fewer people than Metro Vancouver but virtually the same number of cabs. These numbers look worse when we remember that boundary rules only allow a certain percentage of Metro Vancouver taxis to take passengers in the City of Vancouver.
So prior to suspending boundary enforcement yesterday, there were only a measly 0.28 taxis per 1000 persons available to assist stranded commuters.
Eliminating the boundary for good would be more than just a win for the environment, it would also be a boon to taxi profitability. If taxis were able to pick up anywhere, a regional dispatch system could ensure the nearest taxi picks up the passenger. Less time driving home empty would mean more time with the meter engaged.
There’s a problem with this common-sense solution. Licenses have different dollar values depending whether that license is for Vancouver or one of the suburbs.
While a permit to pick up in Vancouver is worth a whopping $800,000, a permit to pick up in Richmond might be worth “only” $500,000. For the Richmond owner, gaining access to the lucrative Vancouver market would increase their license values substantially, but for the Vancouver license owner, profitability could fall. For these reasons the Vancouver taxi companies have steadfastly opposed suburban taxi access.
The taxi companies have an ally in Mayor Gregor Robertson. In a 2011 letter that reads like something from Soviet Central Planning archives, the Mayor wrote the PTB to oppose suburban access to the Vancouver market:
“It has come to my attention that the Passenger Transportation Board is now considering the application of Lower Mainland taxi companies to provide service within city boundaries … It is my view and Council’s that any move to allow the Lower Mainland firms to operate within Vancouver boundaries would be very destructive to customer service quality and the stability of our established firms. It would amount to a wholesale reorganization of the taxi industry with unpredictable consequences, including for municipalities neighbouring Vancouver … I urge you to reject the application of the Lower Mainland firms and to work with Vancouver to improve service by building on the results of the current temporary licensing program.”
It’s a shame that it took transit chaos for the City to temporarily side with common sense and suspend boundary enforcement. Still I hope that yesterday’s temporary suspension is a sign that politicians are waking up to the needless waste and environmental harm created by taxi enforcement. It’s time to do away with the boundary rules permanently.
Benn Proctor is a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy; His master’s thesis is titled “Assessing and Reforming Vancouver’s Taxi Regulations,” accessible online via the SFU library.