Coun. Mike Nickel is working to create a voucher program to encourage more accessible taxis in Edmonton to actually go and pick up disabled clients.

City council’s community and public services committee heard Wednesday that Edmonton drivers are turning down opportunities because they don’t want to drive across town since there’s not enough money in it for them — especially when they have to “deadhead” back.

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“Someone has to subsidize it through some fashion,” argued Phil Strong, the president of the Greater Edmonton Taxi Service, which operates brands like Yellow, Prestige and others.

“Funding goes to ETS (Edmonton Transit Service) [and] funding goes to DATS (Disabled Adult Transit Service). Funding should go to the taxi industry for this kind of work.”

Strong said drivers also want to stay in their zone in the city because they lose so much time going across town to pick up a fare that could then turn out to be a five-minute trip.

He said they lose money and need more to make it worth their while.

“Let’s find a way to have them go get these trips, and 85 wheelchair-accessible taxis in this city is probably pretty close to right on the money.”

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That’s why Nickel wants a voucher system.

“The customer that has a disability, or accessibility issue — put a voucher in their hand and let them choose their provider because not every provider meets their book of business,” he said. “DATS has a different business than Drive Happiness. Drive Happiness is a lot more seniors. DATS is a lot more disabilities.

“So if we let the customer decide, the market will fill the gap if we do it right.”

Nickel told the committee that customers develop relationships with favourite drivers, which will help spread the business around.

“You’ll get to pick… and the money follows the customer as opposed to us driving the back end. Let the customer drive the solution.”

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The committee also did its annual review of the vehicle-for-hire bylaw. Taxi drivers and drivers for ride-share companies still aren’t getting along, the committee was told by presenters from the industry.

Taxis can’t get anywhere close to where they can pick up late-night customers, said one driver. Ride-share drivers for Uber and others are also illegally picking up customers trying to flag them down.

“We want this to stop because this is more or less a hindrance in our taxi service,” said Dawinder Deo, the president of the United Taxi Group, which represents drivers.

“We don’t find space in front of pubs and bars on Whyte Avenue and Jasper Avenue to park our taxis.”

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Deo also said destinations like Rogers Place are a problem because they’re not supposed to stop in front, but instead pull around the corner to a designated area, yet customers throw money at them and jump out at a red light, which catches the attention of police, getting the driver in trouble.

As a solution, Strong said the city should re-establish bus stops as a place where taxis can pick up and drop off customers, which at one point was part of the bylaw.

“That sounds horribly practical,” Nickel said. “Let’s take a look at it. Good ideas don’t always have to come from city hall.”

The committee decided not to make any changes to the bylaw for now, as the taxi industry, Rogers Place management and the city will continue to meet to work on solutions.

Deo said he’s OK with that.

“Yeah, we’re satisfied, because things are moving.”

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