Right-sizing Vancouver taxi fleet a tricky question when cab fares are lowest of major Canadian cities

As I passed a long rank of idle cabs outside the Sutton Place Hotel early this morning on my way to the gym, I wondered where the TV crews were.

Surely after CTV’s series on cab shortages on Granville during boozy weekends, it’s time for the other side: “What does it take to get a fare in this town?”

Although Vancouver has the lowest number of cabs per capita of any major Canadian city, no one is arguing that taxi driving is a ticket to wealth. Cab driving is made up of long hours of unemployment punctuated by periods of intense activity. A driver sitting waiting for a fare is paying the car owner for the privilege.

The CTV series sparked renewed interest in growing the size of Vancouver’s fleet or even bringing in a new type of “ambassador licence,” as they have in Toronto, which is issued to drivers and cannot be leased.

But today the Globe reports that Toronto’s taxi fleet has problems of its own, despite fares much higher than Vancouver’s, which are the lowest base fares in any major Canadian city. (Based on a longer five-kilometre trip, Vancouver is still much cheaper than Ottawa or Toronto, which is more expensive than London or Paris.)

The trade-off is straightforward: if you always want to be able to flag a cab — easy in Toronto, where the per capita number of cabs is double Vancouver’s — get ready to pay through the nose to keep all those drivers on the road.

A real solution requires a balanced approach, focused on the customer, as I suggested in this column for the Indo-Canadian Voice this weekend:

The impact of BC’s tough new drinking and driving laws, which mandate heavy fines for anyone who blows more than .05 on a breathalyzer, are triggering renewed calls for an overhaul of Vancouver’s taxi industry.
The new impaired driving rules have created a dramatic increase in the number of downtown Vancouver club-goers who need a cab when the bars close at 3 a.m.
When cabs aren’t available on demand, customers who have often waited long periods to get into the bar get furious. They want a cab and they want one now!
Their anger has spilled over into a flurry of news reports documenting the weekend crunch and renewing the call for the issuance of new cab licences.
There is a serious danger that a knee-jerk response to new circumstances on Granville Mall will do significant damage to an industry that has not yet recovered from the recession in 2008.
That’s why I will be recommending to my Vancouver council colleagues that we seek a range of solutions to the problems facing taxi customers, not assume that fleet expansion is required.
Vancouver is fortunate to have a taxi fleet, run by four competitive companies, that provides clean, timely and professional service. 
When business was booming, as it was in 2008, there was tremendous pressure to issue more licences, despite the warnings of some industry leaders that the necessary volume of business did not exist.
The Passenger Transportation Board agreed with the skeptics and vetoed the bid for new licences. Even those who championed fleet expansion were relieved, given the downturn that hit Vancouver’s economy in late 2008.
Business has not improved. Cruise ship traffic is down. International travel is improving but remains weak. Many drivers, even in rush hour, sit waiting for a fare.
Does it make sense to expand now, just to deal with a problem we experience two nights a week?
The taxi industry has shown it knows how to put customers first. During the 2010 Winter Games, the industry agreed to relax the rules so suburban cabs could assist downtown.
When sudden crowds at the cruise ship terminal caused delays this year, the industry worked with city officials to streamline loading and unloading to resolve the problem.
Now we need to see creative solutions to this new challenge.
Should we issue licences valid only on the weekend? Allow suburban cabs to enter the city for limited time periods? Are there other solutions?
The Yellow Cab company has undertaken a study to find out the facts on the ground. Black Top has also been front and centre in the debate, defending the industry and offering to work on solutions.
The issue should be reviewed by the city’s Taxi Roundtable, where all stakeholders can offer ideas.
But we should resist quick, simplistic answers that risk undermining all that we have achieved to make Vancouver’s taxi fleet a leader in the Lower Mainland.