The Missing Link in the Taxi Wars: Drivers

The so-called taxi wars have focused almost exclusively on regulation and customer experience. But what are we doing to improve the experiences of those on the front lines?

The Canadian Taxi Association’s inaugural conference took place this week – a collection of around 60 dedicated taxi company owners, operators and industry partners. Transportation network companies (TNCs) dominated the conference’s agenda. Specifically, speakers addressed how Canada’s taxi companies, largely family-owned and operated businesses, can compete with multi billion-dollar enterprises like Uber.

Answers to this question generally centred around two themes; how to level the playing field through regulation, and how to compete on customer experience. There was, however, a missing link in all of this – the drivers.

Canada’s 50,000 taxi drivers don’t have it easy. Long hours, heavy luggage, risk of assault and robbery, traffic, inclement weather, and accidents are par for the course. In Toronto and Vancouver more than 80% of taxi drivers are immigrants. Fifty-three percent of those drivers have at least some post-secondary education.

Drivers are the face of the private transportation industry. When they are unhappy, customers’ experiences will suffer. For any transportation company to succeed in the long-term, they will need to recognize the importance of radically re-designing the driver experience, too.

Drivers today have an increasing array of options. Lyft, operating south of the border since 2012, is competing with Uber for drivers with signing bonuses. As of February of this year, new TNC rival Juno began offering its drivers shares in the company. When taxi drivers took to Toronto City Hall in early 2016 to protest Uber, a quick open of the app revealed just how many were playing both sides of the field. And who could blame them? With the taxi industry’s complex bureaucratic structure, competing on price simply isn’t feasible. TNCs make that option available to them.

Services require value exchanges between people, making them inherently more complex than goods-based transactions. Because of this, improving any one aspect of the service requires the insight and participation of everyone involved. With the exception of a lesser-known Uber feature that allows drivers to rate their passengers, attention paid to driver-facing innovations is scarce.

At that Toronto City Hall protest, a taxi driver infamously hung off an UberX car’s side view mirror, as the car careened down Bay street. ‘Why can’t these companies control their drivers’ many asked. Perhaps the goal should not be control, but collaboration.

Working to improve the safety, reliability, and overall quality of the driver experience will allow drivers to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, justifying the incremental cost associated with traditional taxis over TNCs.

In shifting attention to the dearth in driver-focused innovation, we can create new value for companies, passengers, drivers, and municipalities alike.