There used to be hundreds of taxicabs in the region. Just one company and a few dozen drivers remain.
Craig Cobbett runs the only remaining fleet of taxis in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer
Three short years ago, hundreds of taxi drivers trawled the streets of Greater Portland, ferrying air, bus and train passengers, late-night revelers, hospital patients, business people and whoever else needed a ride.
The pandemic, paired with competition from unregulated ride-sharing services and increasing expenses, demolished the region’s taxi business.
Today, only 55 drivers and 50 taxicabs are registered in Portland. Just one taxi company remains, along with several dozen independent owner-operated cabs. In 2019, the city had more than 100 taxicabs and twice that many drivers.
The stunning collapse of Portland’s taxi industry has left just one fleet – 207 Taxi – standing. Now it strains to meet demand from cash customers and an onslaught of passengers using subsidized transportation for medical appointments, hospital visits and trips to social service agencies.
In 2018, Portland had three cab companies; 207 Taxi was the only one to make it out of the pandemic.
“We have been the only fleet going. We absorbed all the transportation in the city pretty much,” said 207 Taxi owner Craig Cobbett. “We are trying to service 70,000 people and all the accounts. We used to do about 60,000 miles a year. Now we are going 60,000 miles every six months.”
Cobbett and his nine cabs serve dozens of accounts that use transportation vouchers to get clients to and from appointments. Account work now makes up most 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 opposite – drivers spent 80 percent of their time carrying passengers who paid in cash.
With only a handful of cars and drivers, passengers can wait 35 to 40 minutes for a ride.
“We’re busy. People get pissed because no one wants to wait, they need a ride,” Cobbett said. “I have 60 accounts we service with a limited number of cars, and we do the best we can.”
A competitor in the Portland market would be welcome, Cobbett said, but the startup costs are prohibitive. Expensive automobiles are in short supply, and finding drivers is hard. An outfit such as 207 Taxi leases vehicles to drivers for 12-hour shifts, and drivers make their money through cash fares and voucher rides.
Gas prices hovering around $5 a gallon take a hit out of drivers’ earnings, especially since the city’s fare structure – $3 to start and $1.90 a mile – hasn’t changed since 2010.
While 207 Taxi is the only company left around, the majority of taxis in Portland are owner-operated, many by new Mainers.
Ahmed Aden was waiting for fares in his Toyota Prius outside the Portland Transportation Center last week, Best Taxi Service 2, his business name, emblazoned in red on the driver and passenger doors.
The taxi business is tough, Aden said. Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft grab a lot of passengers. The pandemic shutdowns affected the tourism market and took away fares he and other taxis used to collect from passengers on cruise ships and bus tours.
Even payment isn’t guaranteed. A recent trip from Portland to Windham ended with the passenger explaining he couldn’t pay for the ride, Aden said. “I brought him all the way to Windham, and he had no money. What can I do?” he said.
Faced with those challenges, many taxi drivers left the business, Aden said. He’s got six years behind the wheel and will stick with it for now, hoping things will get better. “You have to keep pushing,” Aden said.
Babiker Mohamed owns his own taxi, parked here at the Portland Transportation Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer
Babiker Mohamed has driven a cab in Portland since 2007. Even before the pandemic, ride share drivers started taking a bite out of passengers.
Under state law, local governments cannot regulate ride share companies, with an exception for Maine’s biggest airports in Portland and Bangor.
On the other hand, to register a new taxi in Portland costs $360 and a new taxi driver license is $145. Annual renewals cost slightly less. Fares are regulated by the city, unlike Uber and Lyft rates that fluctuate based on demand.
“There is no business. Uber, Lyft, took over our business,” Mohamed said. These days, he can wait three to four hours for a fare. “That’s the reason people left this job,” he said.
There’s no one reason drivers choose to use a ride share app over driving a traditional cab. Some long-term taxi drivers feel more comfortable using a traditional fare box and the security of a set per-mile rate instead of fluctuating prices, steep fees and technology that accompany ride sharing apps.
Drivers for companies like 207 Taxi can also avoid the maintenance, insurance and other costs that come with using their personal vehicle to drive ride share passengers around.
When lockdown came, Mohamed took his cab off the road for three months. He has since taken a full-time job and now drives his cab just a few hours on days off.
On Friday morning, Babikir was waiting by his tan minivan for bus and train arrivals at the Portland Transportation Center. He’d already taken one fare into Portland and drove another to Lewiston. After catching another fare he planned to call it a day.
“I’ll wait till 11 a.m. Then the bus comes, the train comes, I’ll get someone,” he said.
The pandemic had a devastating effect on the taxi business nationally. Companies lost drivers and vehicles during prolonged business shutdowns, travel restrictions and the overall slowdown of American life.
A typical cab company contracted 40 percent, said Alfred LaGasse, head of the Transportation Alliance, a trade group representing taxi and other ground transportation companies. Companies lost drivers and sold vehicles left parked on lots.
“Everyone took a hit, mostly because people stopped traveling,” LaGasse said.
The industry has rebounded but faces challenges familiar to every other business – a labor shortage, supply chain headaches and soaring inflation.
Uber, Lyft and other companies took a bite after launching a decade ago, but the impact has since dulled, LaGasse said. In New York City, ride-sharing companies have paired with taxi operations, so when someone digitally hails a ride, there’s a good chance a yellow cab will pull up, LaGasse said. The model is being copied in other cities, he added.
“Quite frankly, they were hit just as hard as we were in the pandemic, maybe a little harder,” he said. “The ride-sharing companies are rebuilding just like we are.”
Taxis across the country have also turned to transportation vouchers to keep going. Medicaid-funded and private hire for medical appointments, dialysis and other services was the No. 1 business during the pandemic and remains so today, LaGasse said.
Back at 207 Taxi, Cobbett is willing to see his business through thick or thin. Taxis play a vital transportation role, he said. Good luck to those trying to catch a ride share in a snowstorm, on a holiday or odd times of the day and night to get to work, home or somewhere important.
His company, meanwhile, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and Cobbett expects to keep it that way.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
Success. Please wait for the page to reload. If the page does not reload within 5 seconds, please refresh the page.
Enter your email and password to access comments.
Don’t have a commenting profile?
Hi, to comment on stories you must . This profile is in addition to your subscription and website login.
Already have a commenting profile? .
Please check your email to confirm and complete your registration.
Create a commenting profile by providing an email address, password and display name. You will receive an email to complete the registration. Please note the display name will appear on screen when you participate.
Already registered? Log in to join the discussion.
Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.
Use the form below to reset your password. When you’ve submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.
Send questions/comments to the editors.