No charge: The taxi business sees the end of the road

Craig Cobbett operates the only taxi fleet left in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Three short years ago, hundreds of taxi drivers roamed the streets of Greater Portland, ferrying airline passengers, bus and train passengers, late-night revelers, hospital patients, businessmen and anyone else who needed a ride.

The pandemic, combined with competition from unregulated ride-sharing services and rising costs, has decimated the region’s taxi business.

Today, only 55 drivers and 50 taxis are registered in Portland. Only one taxi company remains, along with several dozen independent owner-operated taxis. In 2019, the city had more than 100 taxis and twice as many drivers.

The stunning collapse of Portland’s taxi industry has left just one fleet – 207 Taxi – standing. It is now straining to meet demand from cash-paying customers and an influx of passengers using subsidized transportation for medical appointments, hospital visits and trips to social service agencies.

In 2018, Portland had three taxi companies; 207 Taxi was the only one that managed to get out of the pandemic.

“We were the only fleet moving. We took over almost all the transportation in the city,” said 207 Taxi owner Craig Cobbett. “We’re trying to serve 70,000 people and all the accounts. We covered about 60,000 miles a year. Now we do 60,000 miles every six months.”

Cobbett and his nine cabs service dozens of accounts that use transportation vouchers to get customers to and from appointments. Account work now represents the majority of Cobbett’s business. Drivers spend about 60 percent of their time transporting people who pay with vouchers. A few years ago, it was the other way around, with drivers spending 80 percent of their time transporting cash-paying passengers.

With only a few cars and drivers, passengers can wait 35 to 40 minutes for a ride.

“We are busy. People get angry because nobody wants to wait, they need a ride,” Cobbett said. “I have 60 accounts that we service with a limited number of cars, and we’re doing our best.”

A competitor in the Portland market would be welcome, Cobbett said, but start-up costs are prohibitive. Expensive cars are in short supply and drivers are hard to come by. A company like 207 Taxi rents out vehicles to drivers for 12-hour shifts, and the drivers earn their money through cash payments and voucher rides.

Gas prices hovering around $5 a gallon hurt drivers’ profits, especially since the city’s rate structure — $3 to start and $1.90 a mile — hasn’t changed since 2010 .

Although 207 Taxi is the only company left around, the majority of taxis in Portland are owner-operated, many of them new Mainers.

Last week, Ahmed Aden waited for a taxi in his Toyota Prius outside the Portland transportation hub, Best Taxi Service 2, his company’s name emblazoned in red on the driver’s and passenger’s doors.

The taxi business is tough, Aden said. Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft grab a lot of passengers. The pandemic shutdown has hit the tourist market and taken away the fees he and other taxis collected from passengers on cruise ships and bus tours.

Even payment is not guaranteed. A recent trip from Portland to Windham ended with the passenger explaining he couldn’t pay for the trip, Aden said. “I brought him all the way to Wyndham, and he had no money. What can I do?” he said.

Faced with these challenges, many taxi drivers have left the business, Aden said. He has six years behind the wheel and will stick with it for now, hoping things improve. “You have to keep pushing,” Aden said.

Babiker Mohammed owns his own taxi parked here at the Portland Transportation Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Babiker Muhammad has been driving a taxi in Portland since 2007. Even before the pandemic, ride-share drivers started biting passengers.

Under state law, local governments cannot regulate ride-sharing companies, except at Maine’s largest airports in Portland and Bangor.

On the other hand, registering a new cab in Portland costs $360 and a new taxi driver’s license is $145. Annual renewals cost slightly less. Fares are regulated by the city, unlike Uber and Lyft’s fares, which vary based on demand.

“There is no business. Uber, Lyft took over our business,” Mohammed said. These days, he can wait three to four hours for a ticket. “That’s why people leave this job,” he said.

There is no single reason why drivers should choose to use a ride-sharing app over driving a traditional taxi. Some long-time taxi drivers feel more comfortable using a traditional fare box and the security of a fixed rate per mile, rather than the variable prices, high fees and technology that accompany ride-sharing apps.

Drivers for companies like 207 Taxi can also avoid maintenance, insurance and other costs associated with using their personal vehicle to drive rideshares.

When the lockdown came, Mohammed took his taxi off the road for three months. He has since started working full-time and now only drives his taxi for a few hours on weekends.

On Friday morning, Babikir waited by his tan minivan for arriving buses and trains at the Portland Transit Center. He had already taken one cab to Portland and driven another to Lewiston. After catching another fare, he plans to call it off for the day.

“I’ll wait until 11 o’clock. Then the bus comes, the train comes, I’ll pick someone up,” he said.

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the taxi business nationwide. Companies lost drivers and vehicles during extended business shutdowns, travel restrictions and the overall slowdown of American life.

A typical taxi company contracts for 40 percent, said Alfred LaGasse, head of the Transportation Alliance, a trade group representing taxi and other ground transportation companies. Companies lose drivers and sell vehicles left parked in spots.

“Everybody got hit, mostly because people stopped traveling,” LaGasse said.

The industry has recovered, but faces challenges familiar to any other business – labor shortages, supply chain headaches and rising inflation.

Uber, Lyft and other companies bit after they launched a decade ago, but the impact has since been blunted, LaGasse said. In New York, ride-sharing companies have merged with taxi operations, so when someone digitally requests a ride, there’s a good chance they’ll hail a yellow cab, LaGasse said. The model is being copied in other cities, he added.

“Frankly, they were hit just as hard as we were in the pandemic, maybe a little bit harder,” he said. “Ridesharing companies are rebuilding just like us.”

Taxis across the country have also turned to transport vouchers to keep going. Medicaid-funded and private hire for medical exams, dialysis and other services was the No. 1 business during the pandemic and remains so today, LaGasse said.

Back at 207 Taxi, Cobbett is ready to see his business through for worse or worse. Taxis play a vital transport role, he said. Good luck to those trying to catch a ride in a snowstorm, on a holiday, or at odd hours of the day or night to get to work, home, or somewhere important.

In the meantime, his company is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Cobbett expects it to stay that way.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said.

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