Local taxi company readies for ride-hailing

Prince George Taxi intends to compete on price with any ride-hailing service looking to get a foothold in the city, according to manager Sam Kuuluvainen.

But whether it will be able to do so remains in question. Clients, meanwhile, could be facing a bit of a dog's breakfast when trying to figure out which offers the best deal.

Both topics could become issues as at least one ride-hailing service, Ontario-based Uride, has an eye on Prince George.

According to the Passenger Transportation Board, which regulates both types of services in B.C., outfits like Uride, known as transportation network services or TNSs by the PTB, will have to charge the same "flag rate" - or initial flat rate for stepping into a car - that taxis do.

Beyond that, "passengers and drivers will be provided with an estimate of the cost of the trip or an up-front price that will be charged before they accept a ride," PTB director Trevor Paul said in an email.

And while Paul noted that there will be no caps on the rates Uride and others like it could charge for the subsequent trip, he said taxi companies remain subject to the rates for distance and time prescribed by the PTB.

For clients, that could mean exposure to "surge rates" from TNSs when demand for rides is particularly high. For the taxi companies, there is the fear TNSs will undercut their per-kilometre rates while they remain handcuffed by PTB regulations on price.

That was one of the points raised in a petition to the court from the nine Vancouver area taxi companies seeking to quash the PTB's framework for regulating the ride-hailing industry, arguing it is "patently unreasonable" and that the PTB lacks the statutory power to create the policies.

In an interview this week, Kuuluvainen said he will be seeking clarity from the PTB on how much flexbility Prince George Taxi will have with the aim of being able to drop its price on app-based calls to compete with TNSs.

Prince George Taxi has had an app similar to those offered by TNSs up and running since last September. "It does everything a Uride app would do with exception of being able to quote a fare, because we're not allowed to do it," Kuuluvainen said.

As it stands, taxis in Prince George charge a flag rate of $3.50 plus $2.05 per kilometre or $40 per hour, whichever is greater. It works out to $21 per hour, Kuuluvainen said.

He also said a cab from Prince George Taxi has picked up a customer within 8 1/2 minutes of getting the call, 85 per cent of the time and that the average wait time is six minutes, although it rose to eight minutes in February due to the cold and snow.

While it's licenced for 70 cabs, Kuuluvainen said it typically has 40 on the road during the day and 20 at night.

"What we do is we double shift and adjust for business volumes - on a guess, sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong," he said. "And there a few times a year, like New Year's Eve, Halloween night...probably for three Saturdays in December where there might be a one-hour period where we have a really hard time keeping up, no matter what we do, other than that we don't have people waiting an hour to come home from the bar."

Based in Thunder Bay, Uride has submitted an application to the PTB and should know within four to eight weeks whether it will have been given the go-ahead to operate, said founder and CEO Cody Ruberto.

While it is operating in Winnipeg and also has its eye on Vancouver, it generally operates in the smaller markets. Sudbury and North Bay in Ontario and Humboldt in Saskatchewan are among its markets according to its website.

"In smaller communities, there are different peaks than you see in a big city and you really have to take care of your drivers and ensure that they're earning a good living," Ruberto said. "We do a bit of a hybrid model where we'll have some people who will schedule themselves for their shifts and do this full time and other people who float on and off the platform just with demand."

Ruberto said he started up Uride in April 2017 after witnessing long lineups for taxis in his home town.

"With taxis, there is fixed supply, which has made it difficult," he said of other markets.

Through its website, it has been working to recruit drivers and Ruberto said it has drawn a good response. Drivers must have a class four licence, he emphasized.

"It's looking promising," Ruberto.

He said Uride is still sorting out its pricing for Prince George but generally has charged 20 to 25 per cent less than the taxis have in other markets.