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Steering taxi drivers toward industry change

By Cindy Atoji Keene

In helping to launch e-hailing taxi app Hailo’s U.S. debut in Boston last year, Vanessa Kafka spent weeks riding cabs around town, talking to drivers, and doing research on how taxi markets work in Boston. “The taxi industry globally is more than 400 years old, and like anything that age, has room to grow and improve,” said Kafka, general manager for British-based Hailo, one of the growing number of start-ups using smartphones to dispatch taxis.

Q: What makes Boston’s taxi system unique?
A: Taxi systems in every city have their own challenges, and Boston is no different. There are about six thousand licensed drivers here, and the cab industry, like almost everywhere in the U.S., is heavily regulated. The medallion system ¬– the licenses that that permit taxi operation – is unique to the city. Boston has more new cabs on the road than most because of a big push by the hackney department to put new vehicles on the road. Like many places, some drivers have feelings of being taken advantage of by either the dispatcher, medallion owners or regulators.

Q: How does Hailo work?
A: We all know what it’s like to stand on a corner, arms flailing, trying to wave down a cab. Instead, Hailo users select their location on a map and tag a nearby driver. If the driver accepts the request, he gets your location information and picks you up. The passenger can see in real time where the cab is and when it will arrive. Hailo uses a complex algorithm that takes into account passenger and cab locations, traffic, and other variables. The app stores credit card information, so payment is handled electronically.

Q: One doesn’t think of cab drivers as being quick to adapt new technologies. What has the response been to the app?
A: It’s true that some guys still don't even use dispatching systems but rely on street hails. I think a few cab drivers are old-fashioned but it’s unfair to lump them into one personality. A year and a half ago, when I did my taxi research, I came to the conclusion that 80 percent of drivers have smartphones, and I would argue that even more have them now. I like to emphasize that Hailo was started by three London cab drivers, because that really resonates with drivers, because it’s a tight fraternity. It all comes down to taking care of the guy in the front seat, because it can be a very lonely job.

Q: What is your personal feeling about the Boston transportation system?
A: Everyone knows about the transit gap, the need for rides after the MBTA shuts down and bars close in the early morning. People are trying to get home, competing for a limited number of Boston cabs. This is a big inconvenience but proves that taxis are an important part of the transportation network.

Q: In your many discussions with cabbies, what is their favorite route?
A: Everyone has a different favorite route, but Storrow Drive is generally a favorite in the early mornings – drivers and passengers love the Charles River sunrise.

Q: You have an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, which led you to working with Hailo, but you also continue to be a singer and songwriter in the Boston music scene. How does your taxi work affect your music?

A: In the past year I’ve met so many new people from all walks of life, including taxi drivers who were former engineers; taxi drivers with Ph.d.s and law degrees. I’ve heard stories about women giving birth in the backseat of a cab and other dramas. And the start-up roller coaster forces you to stay in touch with yourself. All that makes for really good songwriting material.

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