The Green Cab Company To Close at Midnight Tonight
Citing Financial Losses, Peter Pan Pulls the Plug on its Fleet of Hybrid Taxis. The Departure Leaves the City with Only One Licensed Taxi Cab as City Officials Scramble To Enforce the Regulation of Illegal Operators.
By DAVID REID
Green Cab – which ran a fleet of five Ford Escape hybrid taxis and two 10-seater vans serving Northampton and Amherst – will stop doing business at midnight after only 20 months in operation, according to Bruce Westcott, vice-president of business development for the Springfield-based bus company.
“It was an extremely hard decision to make,” Westcott said in a phone interview last week from Peter Pan’s Springfield headquarters. “It was the right business to establish up there, but the business model didn’t work.”
Westcott blamed what he described as an uneven playing field, with his company complying with city regulations while other smaller companies here – registered as “livery” vehicles but acting as taxis – cutting expenses and avoiding city regulations.
The decision to close Green Cab, said Westcott, will allow Peter Pan to focus on its core mission of running buses throughout the Northeast. It also comes right after graduations at the area’s five colleges, when most students head out of the area, dropping demand for taxis, especially on the weekends.
Since its inception, Green Cab made a splash in the city’s transport-for-hire business, seeming to dominate smaller companies that operate here, only one of which – Cosmic Cab, which operates one cab from its 78 Conz St. office – is legally operating as a licensed taxi cab company under the city’s cab regulations.
This February, Green Cab’s firm grasp on the city’s taxi business was the subject of a glowing article in the Springfield Republican, entitled, “Peter Pan’s Green Cab makes serious inroads in competitive Northampton taxi climate.”
What the article missed was the fact the company wasn’t making money, and that its small competitors were running leaner, cheaper operations, but not technically cab companies.
Peter Pan’s Tough, But Necessary, Business Decision
Westcott, who personally managed the Northampton-based taxi business for the past six months, said the company’s seven full-time and about a dozen or so part-timers were given their two-week layoff notices earlier this month.
The cabs, he said, will be sold and the Green Cab logos scraped off the doors of the bus station at 1 Roundhouse Plaza downtown, which county records show is owned by Northampton Terminal Associates LLP; The limited liability partnership’s general partners are listed as Mary Jean Picknelly of Longmeadow and former Western Massachusetts Bus Lines Inc. president John J. Herlihy of West Springfield.
The three siblings are continuing the vision of the company’s founder, their grandfather Peter C. Picknelly (who died in 1964), and their father, Peter L. Picknelly (who died in 2004).
While becoming “one of the largest privately owned intercity bus companies in the United States” (according to the “Company History” link on the company’s website), Peter Pan has gobbled up Trailways and other regional bus lines, now boasting more than 400 “motor coaches,” 1,200 employees and a major terminal in Springfield.
The 79-year-old company has also branched out into real estate, sporting goods distribution, conveyor belts, custom woodworking and architectural windows and doors. And its Opal Real Estate Group is the preferred developer for the former Clarke School for the Deaf near downtown Northampton, the details of which will be announced shortly, according to Robert Schwarz, Peter Pan’s executive VP of public relations told us.
Westcott said Green Cab had an agreement with ServiceNet, a regional social service agency, to handle its clients’ transportation needs, and came up with discount coupons to encourage general public ridership. But the ServiceNet deal fell short of expectations, Westcott said; and every time his company tried reducing its cost per ride, smaller competitors undercut them.
In October 2010, Green Cab made a local splash with new brightly colored cabs that were comfier and cleaner than the competition, as well as “green” because they run on battery power some of the time. The drivers were also given extensive criminal background checks, as well as drug tests, were paid more than other local cabbies and offered health insurance.
“We tried everything, to be honest,” Westcott said. But in the end, the company was losing money every month.
“It wasn’t even close,” said Westcott.
One Green Cab driver told Northampton Media that he and other cabbies were puzzled by the closure because there was plenty of demand for the cabs, which ran almost 24-seven, 365 days a year. Other drivers said the company was undercut by other companies operating under the livery label but acting like cabs.
None of the Green Cab drivers chose to speak on the record or have their pictures taken.
Alan Rulewich, Green Cab’s general manager, will stay on after June 1, and will run the bus station, Westcott said.
Late Thursday, one outgoing Green Cab driver said he and another cabbie there were hoping to start their own taxi company, “even greener than Green Cab,” and have a tentative agreement to use the Green Cab website, but not its taxis. He said the new company is aiming to open for business in July.
A Problem with the City’s Taxi Regulations
But the company’s closing will leave a huge hole in the city legitimate taxi business, and has city officials scrambling to re-examine the city’s taxi ordinances to bring several smaller cab operators under the regulatory umbrella.
Under Chapter 316, “Vehicles for Hire,” Section 1 reads:
“No person, firm or corporation shall operate any motor bus upon any public street or way in the City for the carriage of passengers for hire, in such a manner as to afford a means of transportation similar to that afforded by a street railway company, by indiscriminately receiving and discharging passengers along the route on which the vehicle is operated or may be running, or for transporting passengers for hire as a business between fixed and regular termini unless licensed so to do as hereinafter provided.”
In other words, cabs that respond to requests for a pickup and drop-off of passengers in the city must be licensed under the city’s taxi cab ordinance.
While livery vehicles have fixed routes with set prices, taxi cabs can respond to requests from the public for pick up anywhere in the city for trips to any other point, with a formula for the fees.
The city regulations require cabs to be inspected twice a year, with strict levels of insurance ($100,000 coverage for personal injury of one person, $300,000 for more than one, and $25,000 per accident for property damage), and provides penaties of $100 to $300 per incident for various violations of the law.
The regulation also requires taxi companies to have physical office in the city, and for the drivers to follow strict rules of decorum.
City Clerk Wendy Mazza said she is concerned because of the other small companies operating with livery plates but acting like taxi cabs, picking up fares like a cab company. If these companies are doing that, she said, they are acting illegally.
An internet search for taxis in Northampton lists the following firms: Paradise City Car Serrvice, 221 Pine St.; Northampton Cab Service, 68 Bradford St.; GottaGo Taxi, 16 Damon Road; Tik Tak Taxi, (no address); and Aaron’s Paradise Transportation, 221 Pine St. None of these companies fall under the city’s taxi cab regulations.
Because these firms are not being treated as taxi companies under the city’s regulations, their drivers aren’t given criminal background, or CORI (Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record) checks, their cabs aren’t meeting rigorous inspection standards and insurance levels may not meet city standards.
“They’re acting like a taxi cab,” she told Northampton Media. “It definitely needs to be regulated.” If the city doesn’t rein in these gypsy cab companies, she said, “it puts the city at great liability.”
Mayor and Police Chief Unaware of the Lack of Licensed Taxi Cabs in City
Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz said this week he was shocked to learn from this reporter that Green Cab’s absence will leave only one licensed taxi cab in the city.
“I was surprised there were so few companies operating as taxis,” he said.
As a police detective almost two decades ago, Sienkiewicz said, he brought forward the first comprehensive taxi cab licensing regulations in the city. In recent years, the chief said, he assumed things were running smoothly, since he had received no complaints.
Every year, however, Sienkiewicz runs CORI checks on prospective drivers, making sure they are not unsavory characters with criminal pasts. A check of his own records, however, show that there are only 15 licensed taxi cab drivers in the city, all working for Green Cab or Cosmic Cab; the city has no records on drivers working for the other companies.
With unregulated firms already operating here and ready to swoop into the Green Cab void, the chief said, he’s concerned about the city’s vulnerable population that depends on taxis: senior citizens, the poor, folks with disabilities and those who don’t or can’t drive.
On the other hand, Sienkiewicz warned, over-regulation could force up the cost of a cab ride, making trips harder for low- and fixed-income passengers to afford.
Although Sienkiewicz is currently overseeing his department’s move into a new headquarters building on Center Street, he vowed to revisit the law and start revising the city’s taxi ordinances to regulate these smaller companies, if possible.
“It’s a no brainer, it makes sense,” said the chief.
In past years, the chief said, his detectives conducted sting operations, posing as members of the public calling non-taxi companies to pick them up for in-town trips; if they responded, the companies were given non-criminal tickets. Sienkiewicz said his deepartment will likely have to start conducting those stings again.
Mayor David Narkewicz knew Green Cab was closing as the result of business decisions, but said he was unaware that, starting tomorrow, there will be only one licensed taxi company remaining in the city, with only one cab in its fleet.
If there is a deficiency in the city’s ordinance that can be corrected, he told Northampton Media, “I’ll work with the police chief and the City Council . . . to ensure the safety of Northampton residents who need them (taxis).”
The annual fee for a taxi company license is $25, the same amount charged yearly for drivers to obtain a taxi operator’s license. Both permits expire April 30 every year; currently, there are 13 registered taxi drivers working for Green Cab and two driving for Cosmic Cab, and none for any other “cab” companies operating in the city, Mazza’s records show.
Cab companies, and livery companies as well, must purchase a $50 business certificate that is good for four years. Mazza said there are four companies with business certificate with the city, but only two for a taxi company.
On Thursday, Mazza said, she received a call from a 94-year-old woman who rode in a Green Cab that morning and read a sign inside the cab announcing the company will close Friday night. That, she told the city clerk, was a major concern because she likes Green Cab and has used it often.
“She was very upset, now that they’re closing because there’s almost no one else out there that’s reputable,” Mazza said the woman told her.
Mazza said the woman’s next call was to the mayor’s office.
© 2012 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org