Custom location-based solutions keep drivers on schedule and riders in transit
Driving a taxi is stressful. Taking a taxi can be stressful. Whatever we can do to make things easier for everyone involved is what we strive for everyday."
Nearly 5,500 licensed taxis travel the streets of Toronto each day.
That’s not counting all of the Uber and other on-demand transportation services that compete with these traditional cabs. It’s a busy environment, to say the least.
Most of these Toronto taxis function as a small business. Drivers tend to own their cabs and either work independently or as a contractor under the umbrella of a larger organization. Out of those 5,500 cabs, those with one enduring name on their orange doors stand out from the masses: Beck Taxi.
This 50+ year-old company is more than just a name on the side of a cab. It’s the marketing and dispatch arm for a large group of independent drivers across the city.
How large? There are between 1,500 and 2,000 Beck taxi cabs on the road in the Greater Toronto area at any given time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Founded in 1967 by Jim Beck, the company supports the largest fleet, not just in Toronto but across Canada. The company now dispatches more than 30,000 calls daily and receives 10 million orders a year, not including street hails.
All of these cabs need a way to pick up pre-ordered fares, as well as riders who hail them from street corners. As the competition for passengers skyrocketed city-wide, Beck Taxi’s leadership knew it needed to update its dispatch services. The company has traditionally used two-way radio communication between drivers and central dispatch — 13 frequencies in a big call center.
Beck Taxi already had a proprietary customer-facing app that helped customers book rides, giving them more options to connect with Beck Taxi and its fleet of drivers. Ridership continued to increase. Dispatchers couldn’t keep up. Peak periods were getting increasingly busier, causing excessive wait times for riders. Company executives knew it was time to elevate the dispatch system to the cloud.
“We kept watching our competitors go strictly digital when they hit 200 to 500 cars in a fleet. But it wasn’t working out. Drivers kept coming to us. Customers kept coming to us,” said Beck Taxi’s Operations Manager, Kristine Hubbard. “We were getting too busy and too large to continue only with two-way radios, but we didn’t have the confidence in changing to a third-party system. Our competitors were being crushed as they adopted different software solutions.”
Hubbard felt many of the tech vendors creating taxi solutions had no idea how the industry worked and developed products that were “ugly and clunky.”
“The tech options out there looked awful to us,” she said. “Plus, we have drivers who have been with us for years. One is 82 years old. We didn’t want to introduce something that would alienate a driver who isn’t tech savvy. We wanted to keep our radios but also have a way to better manage all of our drivers on the street. And it had to be easy.”
Hubbard said they knew they didn’t want an existing software solution. They wanted to create a location-based solution that was specific to the way Beck Taxi worked. In 2012, they turned to Google Cloud to see what they could create.
They then connected with a developer that helped them launch the initial Google solution — Android tablets in each cab that connect to the Google Maps Platform in the cloud to give drivers real-time mapping for scheduled pickups.
The solution allowed dispatchers to see what types of Beck vehicles were on the road, where they were and who was driving. For drivers, the maps allow them to see what calls are booked in different zones and who is driving in those zones.
From both the dispatch and driver sides, the Google Maps Platform solutions now quickly connect riders with a taxi and central dispatch, finding the closest available, qualified driver for the fare.
“Driving a taxi is stressful,” Hubbard said. “Taking a taxi can be stressful. Whatever we can do to make things easier for everyone involved is what we strive for everyday. Google Maps Platform helps us do this. It’s clean. It’s easy, and it’s recognizable.”
After some challenges with the initial developer once the tablet program launched, Beck Taxi decided it was time to create its own, in-house development team. With that many tablets on the road, it made sense logistically and financially.
So the company took over development and management for its solutions. This included handling three different Google Maps Platform licenses for its customer-facing, driver-facing and dispatching technology.
The company faced some licensing changes when Google Maps Platform’s premium plan rolled out in 2016. That’s where Onix, a longtime Google Premier partner, came in.
“Beck Taxi had questions and reached out to Google Direct for assistance. Google Direct referred them to us because of our expertise with navigating and negotiation of the often-tedious licensing process,” explained Derek Imes, who heads up Onix’s Geospatial team. “Beck Taxi was looking for a partner who had this experience and had a presence in Toronto. Onix had them covered on both counts.”
Beyond assisting Beck Taxi with its complicated, multiple license renewals, Onix has also provided ongoing consulting for the past two years so that the company can stay online and continue to grow efficiently and productively.
“Now we have a direct line to Onix. There’s a sense of true reliability and the team there is familiar with our business and what we need,” Hubbard said. “They have a strong sense of accountability. When I have a question, I always get a quick answer.”
Hubbard said there’s something to be said about people who can think on their feet and respond quickly. It means a lot to her and the business.
“We have a true partner here, and we don’t need anything in between,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Onix and Google, I’m not sure we could have created what we did.”