What does it take to get a cab in this town?

Black Top driver and owner Amrik Mahil looks for a fare.

Black Top driver and owner Amrik Mahil looks for a fare.

Last October, city council voted across party lines to defer a decision to add 122 taxicabs to Vancouver streets. Industry representatives questioned the need for new permits in the middle of an economic downturn. That report is due to return to council this spring, but drivers remain worried.

Despite the perception among some passengers that “you can’t get a cab in this town,” the reality is often very different. Last week, Black Top driver and Vancouver Taxi Association director Amrik Mahil picked me up at 7 a.m. to monitor the down town rush hour.

Here’s how it went:

7.o0 a.m. Sunny Tuesday morning as Amrik picks me up in my False Creek neighbourhood. Computer shows 63 cabs available in the downtown core. We review the cab equipment: despatch system, phone, GPS, security camera soon be upgraded at cost of $1,400.

7.10 Holiday Inn on Broadway: four cabs available from two companies. Mahil reports tremendous decline in business in past six months. A year ago, a cab waited five minutes for a fare at morning rush hour. This year, you can wait 40 minutes. “This is a slow month, but this year is extraordinarily slow.”

7.17 The entire zone, about one quarter of the downtown area, has produced a single fare so far. Malik outlines his career: six years driving, eight years as a manager, stints as a despatcher, now an owner. Value of half-shift cab licence today (12-hour shift) is about $230,000. Value of full licence: $400,000. Value of 122 licences if issued by city: $48.8 million.

7.23 Second fare shows up in zone! Two cabs waiting outside train station on Main St. We ask drivers about more licences. They are not in favour. More cabs will mean too many drivers chasing too few fares. If earnings remain low, no one will drive anyway.

7.30 Two cabs waiting at Georgian Court Hotel, two at the Sandman. Mahil spends $80 a day, 365 days a year on basic costs: insurance, taxes, GST and other charges.

7.31 There are now 58 cabs waiting for a fare in the downtown core. Mahil: “In the last half an hour, only 10 cars got a trip.” We discuss the Olympics. Drivers expect earnings will not change, given the dramatic reductions in road capacity. They are willing to see cabs from the entire region serve the city during the Games to ensure service. “We’ve said we don’t care if we don’t make a lot of money, as long as everyone gets service.”

7.37 Bayshore Hotel. Five cabs waiting, one just leaving with a fare. Mahil charges a driver $110 a shift to take his cab. The driver must pay his own gas charges. “If you can’t make $200 in a shift, you shouldn’t be driving.” Around the West End: cabs everywhere. Yet Mahil concedes “the West End suffers when we’re busy. The cabs can’t move around quickly enough.”

7.40 “This is prime time, but 42 cars in the downtown are waiting.” Why would anyone drive for next to minimum wage? “You dictate your own hours, take time off when you want. We have writers and singers, who drive cab when they aren’t writing or performing. There are a lot of songwriters in the taxi business.” Today, they must be singing the blues.

7.50 Wall Centre, four cabs; Davie, six cabs pooled up.

7.48 “This is truly the peak period.” Of 180 cabs on the streets citywide, 70 are working.

8.00 a.m. Coffee at Tim Horton’s, Burrard and Davie. We meet driver A. Dhillon, driver for 16 years, who has done two trips since 6 a.m. “Very slow.”

8.20 Check out Black Top lot under north end of Burrard Bridge. Six cabs not even on the road. Wait time for a cab anywhere in downtown zones during rush hour has never been more than five minutes this morning. There have never been fewer than 40 cabs available.

8.40 City Hall. I say goodbye. 40 cabs available across the downtown core. I’ve met about 12 drivers. None favour more licences.