Council Tackles Shortage of Taxis: Major overhaul aims to ease difficulty getting late-night ride

Media Appearances, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

City hall is contemplating a major overhaul of late-night cab and public transit service in Calgary, as holiday revellers com-plain they are being squeezed by a "perfect storm" of travel hindrances.

The taxi crunch is expected to be exacerbated when stricter provincial drinking and driving rules come into play next year, and some worry more Calgarians will find themselves stranded during a night out if changes aren't made.

The city's Taxi Limousine Advisory Committee is being requested by council to work with transportation officials and figure out how best to get more cabs on city roads during weekend nights, holiday party times, and special events, such as the Grey Cup and Stampede.

One of the most difficult periods is between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. when the bars close. But many cabbies don't like people vomiting in their vehicles and sometimes fear for their safety, even as many refuse to use a security shield, according to Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart.

"We have a problem," she said.

While Bill 26 on drunk driving will magnify the cab shortage in the city, Colley-Urquhart said it also gives an opening to move on a series of changes to the taxi industry.

The list of things that officials will chew over includes: a special taxi licence program for certain peak seasons and events; issuing "night time only plates" to bolster over-night cab numbers; mandatory shields to keep drivers safe; and topping up the number of accessible cabs.

Transportation officials will also crunch the numbers on an expansion of late night LRT and bus service to see if it's viable and can take some of the demand off the taxi industry.

But passengers looking for instant relief are going to be disappointed: city officials won't be reporting back until April.

In the meantime, Calgarians have no shortage of bad taxi stories this time of year.

Teri MacInnes knew she would have to plan ahead to ensure a cab ride to her office Christmas party, but she didn't expect it would be so difficult.

"For half an hour I just sat there and hit redial, redial, re-dial, and not once did I get the operator," said MacInnes, who called for a ride the day before her party last week. "In the end, I had to take the bus."

And MacInnes said that while she supports a crackdown on drunk drivers, she's worried about what the new impaired-driving penalties will mean for cab supplies in the city.

"Now even more people are going to be taking cabs, and clearly we don't have enough cabs on the road as it is," Mac Innes said.

Bill 26 adds penalties to drivers who register between .05 and .08 when they blow into a breathalyzer. One consequence is that more people will leave their vehicles at home, which will hike the demand for taxis.

"Late-night transportation has been a problem in the Christmas party season in any case," Mayor Naheed Nenshi said. "We imagine that as people are working hard to comply with Bill 26, that will become an even bigger issue."

Calgary's taxi licences were capped at 1,311 in 1986 and have only increased by 100 since that time.

Calgary MLA and provincial Solicitor General Jonathan Denis tweeted his discontent over city cab shortages earlier this month, suggesting that he planned to take it up with his alderman.

"I take a lot of cabs to the airport and sometimes it has been difficult to find one," said Denis, who added that he's noticed cabs are tough to find during the holidays and Stampede.

Denis hopes the city will examine the issue as part of an overall strategy against drunk driving.

But there may well be push-back. Roger Richard, president of Associated Cab, said short-ages are a temporary problem and issuing more licences will only hurt cab drivers.

"'We really have got to make sure that drivers are able to make a living or we risk losing quality and safety in taxi service," said Richard. "You try to solve one problem and you could end up creating a bigger one."

Still, an independent report on taxi service in Calgary suggests the city should lift the cap on the number of licences issued.

"The fact is, cab licences have grown at roughly half the rate that they ought to have," said Steve Lafleur, a co-author of the study produced by Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which estimates the city is 43 per cent short of the amount of licences required to serve the population.

For Calgarians forced to abandon their vehicles after enjoying one too many libations, parking penalties are an added annoyance.

When Diane Dehekker couldn't reach cab company operators earlier this month, she was forced to drive her car downtown, knowing that she would have would have to abandon it overnight.

Slapped with a $45 ticket from Impark for leaving her vehicle past 6 a.m. the next day, Dehekker said she is irked that drivers like her are being punished when they don't have any other options.

"I think if drivers are asked to be more responsible about drunk driving, the parking lots downtown need to be equally responsible by allowing cars in the lots until noon on the weekend without a penalty," Dehekker said.

At the Calgary Parking Authority, drivers are getting a holiday break on morning parking fees if they leave their vehicles overnight in parkades and surface lots on the weekends. So long as the person has paid for the night, they will be able to leave their vehicle until 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings without getting a ticket.

"The approach that we want to move forward on is to just minimize roadblocks associated with leaving your vehicle behind," said Troy McLeod, the parking authority's general manager.

McLeod said they'll look closely at whether to expand the program outside holiday time, but will have to make sure that cars left overnight aren't taking the spaces of morning drivers.