Ottawa mobile app firm brings technology to local taxis

Ottawa’s main taxi dispatcher is about to give the green light to technology that will let local residents book and pay for cabs on their smartphones.

For the past couple of months, Coventry Connections has been fine-tuning new apps that will allow customers to reserve taxis with the local fleets it serves, including BlueLine, Capital, DJ’s and West-Way. Those companies account for virtually all of the 1,180 licensed cabs in the region.

The new apps, which were developed by local firm Mobile Knowledge’s TaxiHail subsidiary, also offer fare estimates, track the progress of the cab using GPS technology and allow customers to choose their preferred type of vehicle and method of payment.

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Poised to be officially launched later this month on the App Store and Google Play, the services will be custom-branded for each cab company.

“It’s silent. It’s instant,” says Coventry Connections president Hanif Patni. “You don’t have to talk to a call-taker, and the cab is on its way.”

Coventry has been test-driving the apps with Blue Line and its Central Taxi operations in Belleville and the Niagara region since December, and is already getting thousands of smartphone bookings a month, Mr. Patni says. He expects that number to grow quickly into the tens of thousands once the rest of the apps go live.

“We know it will work,” he says. “It’s just a matter of getting the drivers trained up and used to it. We think the numbers will be staggering once people start using them.”

Travis Gray, Mobile Knowledge’s director of sales and marketing, says the Ottawa-based company, which employs about 70 people, has already signed up 76 taxi fleets. That encompasses more than 10,000 vehicles from North America and Great Britain. The technology will soon also be rolled out as far away as the Middle East.

The firm’s clients pay a standard monthly fee per vehicle to subscribe to the TaxiHail service. Mobile Knowledge builds the custom-branded app and does all the maintenance and upgrades as needed.

“It’s a very expensive game getting into developing your own custom app,” says Mr. Gray, who estimates it would cost at least $100,000 for a cab company to design its own version of TaxiHail. “We take all that burden off the shoulders of our clients for a very modest fee – a fraction of what they’d spend doing it themselves.”

Mobile Knowledge isn’t the only player in the taxi-booking game when it comes to smartphones.

Companies attempting to bypass traditional taxi dispatch services using apps have popped up across the globe in recent years, including U.K.-based Hailo and San Francisco’s Uber.

Uber partners with limousine companies to let customers book luxury rides on their smartphones in 72 cities around the world, including Toronto and Montreal. In Toronto, it also has arrangements with independent taxi operators. Hailo has similar operations in Montreal, Toronto and 14 other cities worldwide.

These firms claim to provide better service by allowing customers to connect more quickly with nearby taxis using GPS technology. Uber also employs what is known as “surge pricing” – at peak periods or during bad weather, for example, clients who are willing to pay more get moved up the queue.

Someone hoping to use Hailo or Uber to quickly grab a cab in Ottawa, however, is out of luck. City bylaws require all drivers to be part of a union and they must be tied exclusively to one dispatcher, meaning they couldn’t pick up a fare from, say, Uber while waiting for a call from their own dispatch service the way they can in Toronto.

William Guernier, general manager at Uber Toronto, says the national capital market is ready for some competition. While his company hasn’t approached city officials yet about doing business here, he says his preliminary research suggests local cab riders would be more than receptive to its services.

“We’ve seen a ton of interest from Ottawa,” he says. “When consumers want something, usually they do a pretty good job of letting their elected officials know.”

Mr. Guernier says he sees nothing wrong with cabbies being allowed to connect with potential customers via smartphone rather than through traditional dispatchers.

“We are not a taxi company. We are not a dispatch company,” he says. “We are a technology company. Telling a driver that he can’t pick somebody up using new technology is kind of like telling them they can’t pick people up off the street at all – that they would have to go 100 per cent through their dispatch provider. We are just another tool for drivers to find business.”

The firm will have a tough time selling that argument at city hall, says Coun. Mark Taylor, chair of the community and protective services committee, which regulates Ottawa’s taxicab industry.

Services like Uber open up all kinds of safety and liability issues, he says, such as who would be held responsible if an accident occurred and a passenger was injured.

“I’m not opposed to technology – I love technology,” says Mr. Taylor. “I’m not opposed to companies wanting to come in and market a product and make money off of it. I think that’s great. But there are certain places where the public have required of their local government that it not be buyer beware. And transportation is one of those areas. People want to have some degree of surety.”

He’s also not sold on surge pricing, which is illegal under current Ottawa bylaws.

“That sounds good until someone says, ‘Listen, I’m on a fixed income. I need to get to the doctor, I called for a taxi and there were no taxis for me because everybody else outbid me for a taxi.’”

Over at Coventry Connections, Mr. Patni says his company’s new apps will make the likes of Uber and Hailo unnecessary.

“What will happen is, very soon, the Ubers of the world will not have the dominant market share to be able to survive,” he says. “Every taxi company’s going to have their own app. The loyalty a customer has with a taxi company is incredible.”

Sidebar: Cabs in Ottawa

BlueLine Taxi: 539

Capital Taxi: 234

DJ’s Taxi: 76

West-Way Taxi: 324

Executive Cabs: 7

Total – licensed taxis: 1,180

Total – licensed taxi drivers: 2,689

(Source: Philip Powell, manager of licensing, permits and markets, City of Ottawa)

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