Victoria now has its second approved ride-hailing company, but with the COVID-19 pandemic all but killing demand for the service, it’s anyone’s guess when the first car from either firm will hit the road.
The Passenger Transportation Board announced on Wednesday that Lucky To Go has been approved to operate in Greater Victoria and all other regions of the province. In February, the board approved Vancouver-based Kabu’s application to operate in this region.
“I’m ecstatic — this was something we have been waiting for,” said Lucky chief executive Mandeep Rana. “We have invested a lot of time and energy into this. It’s been long-awaited.”
While the Victoria-based entrepreneur admitted there is little demand for ride-hailing or taxi services anywhere given the COVID-19 pandemic, he called it a “bit of a blessing in disguise.”
“This also gives us some time to get fully prepared, on-board new drivers and do all the procedural work that’s required.”
Rana said he’s optimistic he could have drivers on the road in Victoria by the end of May or early June.
In the company’s initial application, it had hoped to have as many as 150 cars on the road in the Lower Mainland and more than 100 in Victoria within the first 30 days after approval.
Rana said the rollout will now be slower. “We may not launch throughout the province in one go — we will take it slowly and gradually,” he said, adding there will be a limited number of cars at first in Victoria to test the waters.
Kabu spokesman Martin van den Hemel said that company still plans to expand to Victoria, but the timing remains up in the air as a result of the drastic change in the business climate.
“[COVID-19] is wreaking havoc on the entire industry,” he said, estimating its Lower Mainland business has been cut by about 90 per cent.
Kabu, which had hoped to launch in Victoria in March, has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 outbreak because of its international focus.
The company, which operated almost exclusively within the Chinese market before it was approved by the Passenger Transportation Board, said it has been seeing the effects of the virus since early January.
Van den Hemel said drivers and clients, the vast majority of whom are Chinese, saw family affected in China when the virus first spread. “They saw how serious this was,” he said.
While the company still has plans for expansion out of the Lower Mainland, it has to be able to survive to get to that point, he said. “What is the point of launching … when the demand isn’t there?”
A lack of demand has many taxi drivers sidelined as well.
Veteran driver BJ Roberts of Victoria Taxi said most drivers are sitting it out, waiting for the pandemic to pass. “It’s too dangerous. I know there are guys out there still driving, but I won’t gamble on this because [as a driver], you’re not six feet away from the person in the back seat,” he said. “I’m over 70 years old and I stopped Feb. 26.”
Roberts said some drivers have installed plastic shields in their cars, hoping that will be enough of a barrier, but most have opted to stay off the road. He intends to remain parked until after June and, even then, he will wear a mask.
Roberts said as self-employed businesses, many drivers are eligible for federal relief. “Besides, demand is very low right now, especially at night — they don’t make anything now,” he said.
One local taxi company owner confirmed he has left it up to drivers to decide if they want to be on the road. His older drivers in particular tend to want to stay home right now. He said overall demand is way down, though delivery work is slightly busier.
The Passenger Transportation Board also approved Metro Burnaby Rides and Hitch Ride Sharing to operate in the Lower Mainland and Whistler, while turning down applications from 1st Choice Cabs and Rezagholi Vahidi.
The board has made decisions on 28 of the 35 applications it has received from would-be ride-hailing companies and will continue to review applications.