News / Calgary

Illegal 'gypsy cabs' emerge amid Calgary's New Year's Eve crunch

Rides home for Calgary revellers were offered by more than just licensed cabbies on New Year's Eve and one councillor says it's time to explore "deputizing" additional drivers for special events.

Metro spoke with three people who were operating their vehicles overnight Tuesday in a manner similar to a cab despite not having a city license to do so. Drivers of the "gypsy cabs," as they're commonly referred to, solicited customers via text message or through online advertising sites and then transported partiers home in the wee hours in exchange for a fee.

Speaking Wednesday about their efforts, all three said they wanted to curb drunk driving, noting they feared a lack of available cabs and no late-night transit on the biggest party night of the year might lead some intoxicated motorists to climb behind the wheel.

Penny Baker and her husband worked steadily from midnight to 6 a.m. transporting strangers home in their Chevrolet Malibu in exchange for a $20 minimum fee. She said "everybody was so grateful and friendly," and some were willing to fork over more than the minimum charge.

But the city's livery transport bylaw clearly states no person shall advertise a motor vehicle for hire unless they have a city-issued taxi, accessible taxi or limousine driver's license.

Baker said, however, the proof of a need for better service came in the form of her continuously ringing cellphone.

"They say they're going to have cabs for people but they don't and if they're not going to have the (late-night) transit, they need to have a volunteer system for people willing to do this . . . it's no different than people offering rides home to their friends," she said.

Metro also spoke with one do-gooder who was offering rides home to strangers free of charge and found five other ads on Kijiji offering gypsy cab-type services for New Year's Eve.

City livery officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating, head of the city's transportation committee, said there are risks for drivers and customers alike when it comes to running gypsy cabs.

Even still, he said it's worth exploring adding more drivers through Calgary taxi brokers for special events. He said people like Baker could sign on to work for, say, Checker Yellow Cabs or Associated Cab on just the busiest nights of the year.

"You can do the gypsy thing, but it has to be done through the legitimate plateholders," Keating said.

But Jeff Garland, Associated's general manager, said the incentive would be lacking for drivers to go through proper city inspections to only make money a few nights a year. He suggested instead to remove limousine and luxury sedans from a flat-rate system and allow them to charge customers based on the distance they are transported.

Currently, a limo or luxury sedan customer is required to fork out a minimum of $78.30 for a ride.

"There would be more limos out there if they could actually work," Garland said, adding an unexpected dump of snow Tuesday evening did no favours to cabbies working the streets.

He also refuted past claims from city livery officials that a slow-release of taxi licences protects cab drivers who still need to make ends meet during non-peak periods.

"The majority of these (licence) driver-owners, they come to work when they want, they go home when they want," he said, adding Associated had 500 of its own vehicles working in the early-morning hours Wednesday.

A first sampling of taxi-tracking data released by the city last month indicated more drivers work the evening rush-hour than the peak bar-closing times despite demand being higher over the latter period. In response, city livery officials have introduced a bylaw amendment that came into effect Wednesday that will slap anyone who pukes, urinates or defecates inside a cab $100 to help cover the clean-up bill. The hope is the new penalty will entice more drivers to work the late-night hours.

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