CBC News has learned Charlottetown's taxi bylaw is getting an overhaul in response to concerns over inconsistent fares and safety issues.
City police, who license and regulate the drivers, say the bylaw is being examined after a recent report on youth retention identified these and several other concerns.
"In the youth report they identified that a lot of taxis weren't displaying proper identification, the rates weren't consistent, there was a general feeling of unsafety from users of the taxis especially within the youth environment," said Brad MacConnell, Charlottetown's deputy police chief.
The taxi bylaw covers the rules for about 180 drivers and the four companies licensed in P.E.I.'s capital city: Yellow Cab, City Taxi, GrabbaCab and Co-op Taxi.
The bylaw was brought in in 1999 and hasn't seen a major overhaul since. It was last updated in 2013 when fares were increased.
'They will never take a cab alone'
MacConnell said he and several members of the youth retention advisory board met with owners of the taxi companies this past spring after getting the report by the youth board, which examined why young people are moving out of province. The report included concerns about taxis, such as inconsistent fares, availability of rides, safety and the behaviour of some drivers.
"There were some perceived safety issues, especially among some of the younger people," said Zac Murphy, who co-authored the report and is with the Charlottetown youth matters board, adding those safety concerns are especially evident among those who depend on cabs to get home after the buses stop running, sometimes after a night out that involves alcohol.
The youth survey concluded, "Many young women said they will never take a cab alone, as they feel unsafe or uncomfortable."
"Whether that's perception or reality, but it's often said that if you don't feel safe, then you're not safe," said MacConnell, adding that's not the image Charlottetown wants to project for residents or visitors to the city.
The dispatcher at Co-op Taxi, John Perry, has driven a cab in the city for 19 years.
He supports an overhaul of the bylaw but he said passengers shouldn't worry about their safety.
"I'd send any one of our drivers for a 19-year-old impaired girl, take her home and get her home safe. We pick up kids at school that are eight years old and take them to the daycare because their mother can't get off work." Perry said.
Safety a concern for drivers, too
Murphy said he recognizes alcohol and night-time cab rides are an issue for drivers, as well.
"I think it would get annoying and frustrating at times as well when people don't know their address, or where they're trying to go and I know they've had issues with people running out without paying for the cabs," he said.
Perry agrees that safety is a big concern for drivers. "We have to protect ourselves as well as we protect the public."
He said, for example, drivers currently don't have the right to refuse service unless they believe they're in danger.
That can be a problem for drivers asked to take passengers who are so impaired they can barely walk and could pass out in their cabs.
"There has to be line drawn in the sand, where we can say, 'No, we don't feel comfortable taking you. Call your mother, call your sister, call your brother, call a police officer. They'll take you home or they'll take you to jail.' Because I don't want to be responsible for that," Perry said.
Cab company owner supports change
The city has set up a task force to update the bylaw and address some of these issues. Taking part are MacConnell, Murphy, and representatives from the airport authority, port authority, hotel industry, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Industry Association and city council.
The task force has been meeting for several months and last week met for the first time with representatives from the taxi companies.
Joe Corrigan, owner of City Taxi, described it as a "positive discussion" and said the companies have agreed to work with the task force on the issues that were raised, including displaying of licences, consistency of fares, and training for drivers.
Every year, taxi drivers have to get their licences renewed, get an updated photo ID and pass a criminal background check.
The licence must be displayed inside the cab, near the driver's door. Displaying the photo ID is important, said MacConnell, because it confirms the driver is licensed. Also, if a passenger wants to pursue a complaint, the ID gives them the name of the driver.
Failure to display licences
After his meeting with the owners last spring, MacConnell said he discovered it was common practice for drivers to remove their photo IDs after that annual inspection. He said he was told the drivers took them down so they wouldn't be damaged or stolen by passengers.
"It was concerning that they would meet the requirements at the time of inspection but at an undetermined time later many of them were becoming uncompliant and were removing those things," he said.
"The quality and consistency of appearance and presentation of the drivers, including their identification cards, was inconsistent across the industry so that left a lot of users of the taxis with an uneasy feeling and that was reflected in the youth advisory report."
Since that was identified, police have been doing spot checks of taxis and have fined four drivers who didn't display their licence, MacConnell said.
CBC took rides with seven different drivers from four taxi companies and no licences were displayed in any of those cabs.
Beyond regular provincial safety inspections, taxis in Charlottetown must also be inspected annually by police, to make sure they have four working doors, seatbelts, and meet specified size requirements inside.
Taxis in Charlottetown don't use meters; instead, fares are based on a system of six zones. There are additional charges for additional passengers. Fares are determined by the destination, how many zones are crossed and whether the taxi is travelling north-south or east-west.
The fares start at $6.50, and in zone 6, which covers the outer areas of the city, fares range from $8.75 to $13.25. The bylaw does not define any fares for trips outside the city.
"There seems to be no rhyme or reason for how much they charge," concluded the Youth Report. In fact, Murphy said, it was the biggest issue involving taxis that emerged from his group's report.
"If you're taking a cab from point A to point B, one time it might be $15, the next time might be $20."
CBC did its own experiment to check out fare consistency among the four taxi companies. In the first run, between McDonald's on University Avenue and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the rates were fairly consistent, varying from $7.75 to $8.
On the second trip between Tim Horton's on University Avenue and the Nissan dealer at Maypoint, the fares charged by the four companies were all different, ranging from $8.75 to $10.
"It's confusing and it's not clearly defined," MacConnell said. "It should be a predictable amount if you're going here to there, what's it going to cost."
However, he felt, while inconsistent, none of the drivers CBC took rides with appeared to be overcharging given the range of fares available under the current bylaw.
The current system does need updating, in Perry's opinion, as it doesn't allow for stops made during a ride, such as going through a fast food drive-through.
Doug Newson, CEO of the Charlottetown Airport Authority, told CBC the most common complaints he hears from travellers are inconsistent fares and sharing a cab with someone they don't know.
"It is time to look at it and see if we can raise our game. I think it'll benefit the drivers, it'll benefit the industry as a whole, if we have a better overall service from the taxi drivers," he said.
"We're pretty happy with how things are going right now although it doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking at other best practices."
Complaints of shortage of drivers at night
A shortage of drivers at peak times is a complaint he also hears about, especially late at night.
"There's certain times of day when it's almost impossible to keep up with those numbers," he said, adding that could be a difficult problem to solve with the demands of passengers arriving and wanting cabs within a short period of time, scattered throughout the day.
While any cab company can deliver passengers to the Charlottetown Airport, it has a contract with Yellow Cab to provide taxis for visitors leaving the airport and the fare system is posted in the arrival area.
And over the summer Yellow Cab operated a kiosk at peak hours to help those arriving find a cab, and answer questions about fares they'd be charged. A decision has not been made yet whether to staff a kiosk next year.
The task force is reviewing all areas of the taxi bylaw, including GPS tracking, fare meters, professional training and plexiglass shields to separate the driver from passengers. "Everything's on the table," said MacConnell.
Corrigan of City Taxi said after meeting with the task force, the owners have agreed to install debit machines in all cabs and look at mandatory training to make sure drivers understand the fare system and know most of the streets in the city.
"Anything that's going to create more business, save business, prevent us from losing more business. I'm all for it," Perry said.
The task force plans to meet with the taxi owners again before the end of the year and make recommendations to city council early in the new year.
MacConnell said he hopes to see the overhauled taxi bylaw in place before the spring.
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