News / Calgary

Calgary taxis: Becoming a city cabbie is no joyride

Alemayehw Kejela took a defensive-driving course, proved he was proficient in English, underwent a police background check and snapped photos of himself in front of 30 major Calgary landmarks.

Then, the real training to become a licensed cabbie began.

In all likelihood, the bulk of the 18 students in his class will pass and earn a their taxi drivers licence, but it won't be without dozens of hours of work. The course itself is five days long and features a test each day — a mark of 80 per cent is required to advance.

On Monday, he learned about the dos and don'ts of customer service. Tuesday's teaching centred around difficult situations, conflict resolution and the city's livery bylaw, while Wednesday's material addressed special concerns surrounding visible minorities, as well as disabled and senior citizens.

"We even have goggles in the back that we have them put on to impair their vision," remarked John Popplestone, a senior taxi inspector for the city.

Thursday's geography teaching is where most of the 5-10 per cent of applicants who fail the course will be tripped up. Forty questions are posed to each student asking them various amenities in each of Calgary's four quadrants as well as roadways running along popular landmarks and the best routes to get from various Point As to Point Bs.

For the most part, they (cab drivers) are expected to take anyone and everyone that comes up to their taxi and they're expected to take them no matter how far they want to go — John Popplestone, City of Calgary senior taxi inspector

As he pored over maps alongside his peers, Kejela admitted the course has been a challenge, but said it would be well worth it in the end.

"It's the freedom, that's what I like," he said of becoming a licensed cabbie. "I want to make my own choices, work my own hours."

Popplestone said many of the hundreds of applicants that take the course annually are surprised at the standard they're held to long before picking up a customer and flicking on the meter.

"You may come in here thinking you just jump in a taxi and away you go," he said. "It's so much more than that. We've tried to turn it into a profession as opposed to something you just do on a whim . . . we want to try to set these guys up to succeed."

The course costs nearly $800 and is held twice monthly. High demand for the program leads to months-long waits just to enter.

Even in the age of driver-friendly GPS technology, it's still hoped that cabbies will, over time, be able to readily navigate much of the city in their heads. The goal is that drivers will be able to transport the average customer to their community of choice and then ask just a few questions to narrow in the specific street where they want to be dropped, Popplestone said.

He said that while the cabbies are technically independent contractors, they're also expected to act as "unofficial ambassadors" for the city and act as a tour guide of sorts if so requested.

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Can you answer the questions? Here's a sample from the Calgary cab driver quiz:

1. Provide a short description of what visitors can expect to find at Spruce Meadows?

2. Name five major roadways in northwest Calgary and which direction they run.

3. Name four shopping districts or malls in the city's southwest quadrant.

4. Name 10 communities that can be found in the southeast quadrant of the city.

5. What quadrant are the following venues located in and what major road or intersection runs alongside it?

a. The Volleydome

b. Nose Hill Park

c. McMahon Stadium

d. Hooters

e. Scotiabank Theatre Chinook

6. What's the best — and cheapest — route to get a passenger to and from the following locations. Name the major routes you would take.

a. Peter Lougheed Hospital to 327 Coral Springs Place NE

b. Radisson Hotel Calgary Airport to Telus Convention Centre

c. 189 Silver Mead Cres. NW to University of Calgary

d. 288 Evermeadows Ave. SW to Southcentre Mall

Calgary cab manager criticizes driver course delays

Enrolment backlogs in Calgary's livery-driver training program are putting a drain on the available pool of potential cabbies in the city, contends the manager of one brokerage.

"If you signed up last month, the next class is in June," said Jeff Garland, who oversees a fleet of drivers under the Associated Cab banner. "What it does is discourage good applicants from even coming into the industry. Who's going to wait 6-7 months to do the class and then shell out $800 or $900?

"That's where their problem is, it's not mandating what they need to do and when they need to drive."

Garland's reference was to a proposal that Calgary's chief livery manager Marc Halat appears deadset on steering ahead that would required every one of the 1,526 cabs cleared to operate in the city to be in service from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Similar requirements would be in place during the Calgary Stampede and other high-demand events.

But the brokerages have instead contended that more taxi plates need to be issued. Garland added that streamlining the process to become a cabbie would help as well, noting he first revved up criticism of the driver program when it was rolled out in 2006.

"When there's a supply problem, what do you do? You boost the supply," he said

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