When was the last time you took a cab in St. Albert to go to the mall or an appointment—or even that long trek to the airport? Now think back to how you booked that ride. Chances are, whether you used a traditional taxi company or a ride-share upstart (such as Uber), online technology and smartphone apps have influenced how you book your rides. But commuters aren’t the only ones thinking differently about the taxi industry. The people who legislate licensing, create bylaws and make their livings as drivers/brokers are thinking differently about the industry, too. Whatever your position on the changes, industry watchers and consumers alike agree: it’s a time of change for those who make a living from, use or just want a share of the ride-for-hire pie.
Once ruling the road, a handful of taxi companies in St. Albert (St. Albert Taxi, Aaron Taxi, Saint City Taxi) and about the same number in Edmonton, (Yellow, Co-op, Barrel, Capital) have seen driver/broker incomes drop while illegal “bandit” cabs take to the streets of the capital region. Offering cheap, flat-rate rides, while sometimes sidestepping critical licences and insurances, ride-share companies are changing the taxi game. And it’s a fundamental change in mindset—from old-school methods of calling to book a cab from your home or work (or hailing one on the street corner) to pulling up an app on your mobile device—that many (especially the younger generation, say cab drivers) are embracing.
In an informal online survey of St. Albert residents, many were blunt in their analysis of the traditional cab business. “It’s a dinosaur—the industry can benefit from a new way of thinking and doing things. Uber brings that to the market. Let the consumer choose,” says resident Darrin Maidlow.
St. Albertan Melissa Land agrees, saying she uses Uber all the time. “They are reliable and safe. I never use a cab anymore,” she says.
Garry Dziwenka, the director of the City of Edmonton’s licensing and vehicles for hire department, says that even just a few years ago, no one could envision the shakeup now facing the taxi industry. ”It’s a new reality—controversy that will bring about change. The proposed bylaw for Edmonton will allow flexible entry into the industry (more part-time drivers), so there will be options for drivers and to the public.”
Edmonton and Calgary are presently grappling with how to marry consumer demands for safe, competitively priced ride-share services with public safety and equitable rules for all ride-for-hire providers. Edmonton’s proposed new bylaw addresses issues like lawful insurance and minimum fares for all the players, while moving vehicle registration fees from drivers and taxi plate owners to the private transportation providers (PTPs) like Uber.
“These changes would mean the end of Uber in Edmonton,” says Ramit Kar, Uber’s general manager for Alberta. “It would render ride- sharing an unsustainable business model in Edmonton.”
But Edmonton taxi advocate Balraj Manhas says such changes are the only way to proceed. “The fees should be the same as for the taxi industry, to have a level playing field. If they want to work in this business, they should pay for this business,” he says.
While the matter returns to Edmonton City Council in the new year, tens of thousands of consumers have already signed a petition on Uber’s website to save ride sharing in Edmonton.
Cities like St. Albert and Red Deer are watching the Uber debate carefully. No regulations govern PTPs here, so Uber makes regular trips north of Edmonton—which suits resident Cameron Breholen just fine. “Uber gets to your door in less than 20 minutes, at about half the cost of a regular cab,” he says.
Dziwenka says many municipalities face the same issues, where existing bylaws don’t contemplate such a business model. “It’s a new economy—the same is happening with Airbnb and music-streaming services,” he said. “The taxi debate is just the first to come to a boil.”
St. Albert may be watching the battle brew between PTPs and taxi companies in Edmonton, but it’s doing so from a different perspective: there are no caps on permits and no monopolies on the number of cab companies that can operate in the city because, in St. Albert, there is no taxi bylaw of any kind. All that is required for the six taxi businesses (and a few other companies operating within the city but based outside the perimeter) is a valid business licence (resident or non-resident) obtained from City Hall by presenting a vehicle information form and licensed driver.
“At this point, we don’t deny any licences, as long as the criteria are met,” says Cheryle Wong, business licence inspector for the City of St. Albert. “We haven’t been contacted by Uber to operate here, but we have received direction from Council to move toward creating a taxi bylaw. It’s in the infancy stages, but something will come,” she says.
In Red Deer, a city twice the size of St. Albert, the 137 taxis on the road are regulated, with one plate allowed per 750 population—limousines and sedans are governed under a separate bylaw. Drivers or companies pay a $50 yearly renewal fee and $50 for an ID plate, plus they must show proof of insurance and the car’s safe mechanical condition.
The system works well, according to Red Deer Development and Licensing Supervisor Angie Keibel. “We’re not aware of unlicensed cabs like Uber coming in to Red Deer, but we’re waiting to see what Edmonton and Calgary do. We’re keeping our ear to the ground,” she says.
Though no bylaws govern taxi movement in St. Albert, it’s understood that only local cabs can pick up in St. Albert. (But Uber and (sometimes) Edmonton cabs do come in for pick-ups, say local cabbies). Those same St. Albert cabs cannot pick up in Edmonton because that city’s bylaw prohibits it. It’s a fact St. Albert Taxi owner Blair Logan knows only too well—he has accumulated over $10,000 in fines in the last two years, paid to the City of Edmonton for picking up return fares to St. Albert after dropping off customers in Edmonton.
“There’s enforcement around Jasper and Whyte Ave. on weekend evenings—it doesn’t feel fair,” says Logan, who operates 15 cabs (his own or driver-owned) in St. Albert, throughout Sturgeon County and into Edmonton or the airport. “We follow the same rules as Edmonton cabbies—same insurance, same start rate of $3.60 (then about $1.50 a kilometre).”
Logan says his company has Class 4-licensed, medically-cleared and experienced drivers, cars with meters, decals and top lights, and insurance “with hefty premiums” that covers passengers. “Gypsy cab drivers, like Uber, are playing an unfair game. They come off the street with a Class 5 licence and their own car. Is it safe? I don’t mind being competitive if they play fair. But I’d want to know I’m in a safe and properly insured car,” he says.
“And meters protect the customer and driver. Uber can charge a flat rate of $30 or $40 to West Edmonton Mall, but depending on time of day and traffic, it can cost less than that. With a meter, people see the rate and know they’re not getting ripped off. Some companies in town have decals and meters, some don’t. I do think we need guidelines and regulations,” he says.
Even though competition from the ride-shares has meant some loss of trade on evenings and weekends—when he says younger St. Albert residents are heading to Edmonton’s bars and clubs—Logan says he continues to have many loyal customers, from seniors going shopping or to weekday appointments, to a good chunk of business—some 20% of the trade—going to the airport.
Plenty of St. Albert residents use a cab to get to the airport, saving the cost of a stay at park-and-fly lot while away on business or holiday travel. The flat rate from St. Albert via taxi (car, minivan, bus) is about $70 to $75, and while St. Albert taxis are not permitted to line up for fares from the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) back to St.Albert, they can do so if pick up is pre-arranged, and the cabbie comes into the terminal with the passenger’s name and flight information.
Brett Bain, ground transportation manager at EIA, says pre-arranged rides happen regularly, as long as the driver pays a $4 trip fee to EIA for accessing the commercial curb.
“Of Edmonton’s over 1,300 cabs, 210 are licensed (with four major Edmonton brokers) to pick up fares at the airport. It’s a 24/7 business with plenty of customers to go around,” says Bain.
While cabs can offer an obvious advantage—especially for seniors or those with mobility issues in getting around town or to and from Edmonton—St. Albert Transit provides service to all areas of the city, too (except for the very newest neighbourhoods). Boasting 94% coverage, transit has bus stops within 400 metres of homes and, according to a 2015 ridership survey, an 80% satisfaction rating among passengers.
Will Steblyk, acting director of St. Albert Transit, says of the city’s two systems (local and commuter), the vast majority of the yearly 1.1 million rides on 56 buses go to Edmonton’s downtown, post-secondary institutions (University of Alberta, MacEwan University, NAIT) and to West Edmonton Mall. Students use a U-Pass (which is included in tuition fees) for transit rides, while an adult commuter pass is $112 a month. Single tickets are $6 into Edmonton (10/$41.25), with local rides at about half that cost (10/$24.00).
“Transit is in the early stages of a project examining the local route network—how to better link access to commuter routes and within St. Albert for residents and employees,” says Steblyk. “We’re also pursuing the expansion of park-and-ride facilities at the south end of the city (Campbell Road and Anthony Henday transportation corridor). We’re hoping that can happen by 2018.”
A commuter bus does run in the evenings to accommodate shift workers, those opting to take a bus to social events in Edmonton or the cost-conscious. The #201, for example, runs downtown from the city’s transit stations until about midnight.
While an LRT from Edmonton’s NAIT station to St. Albert city limits (Campbell Road area) has been discussed for years, Steblyk says 10 to 12 years is an optimistic guess for expanding public transit to that extent.
Getting around in motorized fashion is certainly the norm for commuting into Edmonton, whether for work or leisure. But cyclists and pedestrians have a vast network of trails in St. Albert (and dedicated bike lanes on a few roads within Edmonton) to get to and fro.
In St. Albert, the 85-kilometre Red Willow Trail System connects parks and neighbourhoods—Red Willow Park, Lacombe Lake Park, Lions Park, Kingswood Park, Big Lake, Riverlot 56 and the St. Albert Place Promenade.
On the trails, cyclists and walkers are regularly joined by in-line skaters, runners and those taking the on-leash dog for some fresh air, but the vast ribbons of city sidewalks also get residents where they’re going, connecting neighbourhood streets to major arteries, bus stops and more.
Faced with the need to create a new business model, one that deals with both traditional cabs and private transportation providers, St. Albert will likely move toward a taxi bylaw sooner rather than later. In the meantime, one thing is sure: metered cabs may not be disappearing, but neither is competition for the consumer ride. t8n
A bus ride from St. Albert into Edmonton is $6 single fare (a transfer can get you back on the same fare). While St. Albert Taxi’s Blair Logan says a metered trip to WEM from St. Albert averages about $28 to $30, the same ride is often a flat rate of $30 to $40 with ride-sharing private companies. (Uber’s fees are provided on its app).
St. Albert Taxi reports that it will come to a home or business address at any time, but if you’re at a local pub in the wee hours or when it’s minus 30, don’t expect a cab to be waiting. Blair Logan of St. Albert Taxi says experience has shown that the vast majority of time in such cases, fares don’t appear and the cabbie is left idling. You’ll most likely have to hail a passing cab outside or catch a ride with a designated driver.