'TO SAY WE ARE UNHAPPY IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT'
PENTICTON - The taxi business continues to be disrupted by unlikely competitors, but this time it isn’t Uber or other ride-sharing services muscling in on Penticton taxi business — it’s a seniors service.
Eckhardt Senior Services bills itself as a ‘companion service’ for seniors. The company charges $55 an hour to pick up clients and assist them as they go about their business.
But taxi companies are calling it unfair competition because while Eckhardt offers more than a simple ride, it doesn’t face the same heavy regulations as taxi companies.
Penticton Taxi Office Manager Jennifer Connors says the situation is similar to Uber and ride-sharing companies.
“Eckhardt Senior Services is able to offer a similar service to ours, without having to jump through regulatory hoops or government-regulated taxi expenses,” she says.
The special companion license exempts Eckhardt from licensing, safety, insurance and other costs taxi companies have to pay.
“His operating parameters say he’s to operate a single vehicle and charge a minimum $45 an hour…. We’ve discovered he has six vehicles and picks up anyone who contacts him,” she says, adding his operation has resulted in a noticeable, detrimental effect on the taxi company’s bottom line.
Taxis are an important part of the city’s transportation system. As business is scraped away, it challenges the reliability of the service and competing ride-share services and companion services are under no obligations.
“Many of our regular customers are seniors. We’ve lost quite a few of our regulars,” she says.
Penticton Taxi filed a complaint to the Passenger Safety Branch in May. Since then, Connor says the branch has refused to provide more information as the investigation is ongoing.
“We’ve seen his drivers picking up people at the Lakeside (Resort), dropping people off at the airport, and these people certainly weren’t 65 or disabled,” she says, adding her company has called to book a vehicle and has never been questioned about age.
“To say we’re unhappy is an understatement,” she says.
Penticton Taxi operates with five dispatchers and up to 28 drivers, all of whom need a chauffeur’s license, criminal record checks and annual city licenses, which they must pay for.
Courtesy Cabs President Amar Kahlon agrees the situation is unfair.
“I have insurance costs of $450 to $500 per month per cab, six-month vehicle inspections, a 24-hour dispatch operation, GPS monitoring and a safety panic button in our cars, safety measures that cost money to operate. These companies don’t have to spend that money,” he says, adding he doesn’t believe Eckhardt is operating according to Passenger Transportation Branch regulations.
Kahlon says there is also no way of monitoring who Eckhardt’s service is picking up, noting the difficulty in verifying whether someone is a senior when they call for a ride.
“No one is monitoring that,” he says. “He charges $5 per ride when he is supposed to be charging a minimum $45 per hour, and he’s only licensed to operate one vehicle…. If he were charging $45 an hour we would have no problem with that, but the $5 charge and not operating as per his tariff are issues.”
Eckhardt owner Kerry DeLong says it’s not so simple on his end either. Technically, his staff can’t pick up just anyone — his service is restricted to seniors over the age of 65 and the disabled. DeLong says he pro-rates the hourly charge, which often results in a cross-city trip for $5. He says as a companion service, he’s not regulated as to how many vehicles he can have.
“Once we received approval for our operation we no longer had to follow the rules and regulations of a taxi service. We’re a different business model,” he says, comparing his business to franchise operations like Driving Miss Daisy or Home James, which he says are prevalent in communities throughout B.C.
DeLong says he began fielding calls from the Transportation Safety Board four years ago when he began the service because of complaints from local cab companies. He shut down and applied for the special license, which he received.
His application came under review this summer when his fleet grew to six vehicles. He was given a cease-and-desist order to stop doing point-to-point runs, which he says he has done.
“I don’t pick up at bars or at the curb,” he says.
During a seniors-oriented event at the convention centre at the beginning of October, DeLong says he was operating later in the day than he normally does, making several runs to the convention centre, where he says he incurred the wrath of the city’s evening taxi shifts.
“I had four tires slashed that night. The police came,” he says.
While he believes he is taking the brunt from existing industry players, he says he is just adjusting with the times. This isn’t the first, nor the last, business to be disrupted.
“The transportation industry is in the midst of change. With Uber and the shared ride concept, drivers will be going to work and sharing their vehicles in two years’ time,” he predicts.
He insists he is fully compliant with the regulations of his business.
“The industry is changing fast. Cabbies are upset and they are blaming me,” DeLong says. “It’s a different business model. We don’t need chauffeur’s permits and we are exempt from the Transportation Act. If we were operating against the law, they would shut us down in a minute.”
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