'A one-two gut-punch': COVID-19 puts B.C. taxi industry 'on the ropes'

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced many B.C. cab companies to shut down while others have drastically reduced their fleet as demand for rides has dwindled.

The Vancouver-based Yellow Cab company's fleet of 2,300 vehicles has been scaled back by two-thirds as the number of trips have dropped by nearly 80 per cent.

The Surrey-based cab company Kuber Taxi Service has suspended its operations. On the North Shore, Sunshine Cabs has laid off the bulk of its staff and drivers, save for a few essential staff that provide wheelchair service.

"Naturally, our business like a lot of businesses suffered immensely, and the calls started to whither away," said Gurdip Sahota, 51, a general manager at Sunshine Cabs who was recently laid off.

"Just yesterday, I applied for my EI benefit ... I imagine all of my other staff have already applied, and we'll try to ride this out," he said.


A challenging year

The outbreak comes as cab companies try to adapt to a changing competitive landscape.

Sahota says 2020 has been fraught with challenges as it competes with companies like Uber and Lyft for passengers — and drivers.

He estimates his company has lost about a quarter of his drivers to ride-hailing companies.

"The taxi industry in British Columbia was already on the ropes," said Sahota. "With the advent of COVID-19, it was sort of like a one-two punch to the gut of the taxi industry and we still haven't recovered."

Once the dust clears, Sahota hopes provincial transportation officials will ease up regulations over taxis — including rules that limit where drivers can pick up passengers — so it will boost the industry and make it more competitive with ride-hailing companies.

Tina Lovgreen/CBC
Tina Lovgreen/CBC

Maintaining operations

Carolyn Bauer, general manager of Yellow Cab and a spokesperson for the Vancouver Taxi Association, says it's unclear how the industry will rebound amid this difficult stretch for business.

"I don't think any company has an answer at this point, but we're working really hard to continue to support the community and move the people that we've been moving for a hundred years now," she said. "Hopefully when this goes away, if it ever goes away, people will get the courage to step outside again."

Kulwant Sahota, president of Yellow Cab and a taxi driver for more than two decades, continues to pick up passengers. Like the rest of the cabs in the fleet, his vehicle is outfitted with protective plastic polyethylene. New cleaning protocols are also in place, with drivers wearing masks and gloves.

The company has had to adjust its business model to maintain operations.

"Some of the passengers we are taking on [are] the elderly care-home workers, the doctors. We're taking some of the construction workers, we're doing blood deliveries ... or medicine from pharmacies to care homes," said Sahota.

Kulwant Sahota knows the risks picking up those passengers. He has two kids who are immune compromised and has had to distance himself from them as he continues to work.

"At the end of the day, I still have to feed my family. I still have to pay the bills," he said.

B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure says taxis are an essential service and hopes companies can remain open. In a statement, the the ministry says it's trying to provide relief.

Operators are allowed to temporarily defer their Passenger Transportation licence renewal fees for up to six months.