Regional Australia’s taxi industry is on the brink of collapse and may leave elderly passengers cut off from their communities, according to operators crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Coronavirus restrictions have led to a dramatic drop in taxi customers
- The industry in regional areas is on the verge of financial ruin
- There are fears an industry collapse could leave the elderly and people with disabilities stranded
Isolation measures have drastically reduced roadside customers in regional towns and choked an industry already wounded by the prevalence of ridesharing apps.
Operators in the Illawarra, Ballarat and Townsville areas have had to walk away from the job or wait out the pandemic.
Many are living on the edge of financial ruin.
“To be honest with you, it’s heartbreaking,” said Scott Parker, a taxi operator of 16 years in Ballarat who planned to use the proceeds of his two vehicles as a retirement fund.
“My cars can’t even generate enough income to keep themselves running — misery on misery is a good way to put it.”
Elderly may be disconnected
Almost as bad, though, was the prospect of leaving elderly customers stranded, he said.
“From the elderly through to the disabled … we will look after them as long as we possibly can, whether we get support or not,” Mr Parker said.
“There’s a lot of people who rely on us; we’re their sole form of transport on a day-to-day or a weekly basis.
“Without taxis in Ballarat, they would simply be housebound, and this is not an acceptable situation.”
Pubs, clubs, restaurants, casinos and cinemas were ordered to shut last month to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Bustling streets have since emptied, paralysing the taxi industry.
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One thousand kilometres to the north, the Illawarra’s sole operator has resorted to delivering groceries in a desperate bid to stay afloat.
“This is uncharted territory and it’s overwhelming,” Illawarra Taxi Network business manager Ehab Latif said.
“Drivers are sitting around not doing anything for hours and there is genuine anxiety.
“We need local support because people are coming in and just staring at the manager asking for help; asking how to survive this.”
A new world
In northern Queensland, less than 50 taxis now service Townsville’s population of 180,000 people.
“What is even more difficult is most of our drivers are in their 60s and 70s,” Townville Taxis general manager Daniel Capps said.
“They now find themselves in a Centrelink queue for the first time.
“It’s a new world for them and it’s distressing, both financially and emotionally.”
A financial parachute
From May 1, many drivers will be eligible for $1,500 fortnightly payments under the Federal Government’s JobKeeper scheme.
However, those who owned or leased their vehicle said it covered little of day-to-day costs.
Taxi licences have also dropped in value from around $500,000 to less than $150,000 since the introduction of Uber in 2012.
For drivers, the resale value of their licence was a financial parachute before retirement, said Transport Workers Union NSW secretary Richard Olsen.
“[Coronavirus] is going to be the nail in the coffin for so many drivers,” he said.
“It’s nationwide, it’s hit everyone, and there hasn’t been enough done by the taxi regulator to protect the industry.”
A Transport For NSW spokesperson said the department was “engaging with industry and stakeholders to ensure essential services remain in place”.
The department did not respond to questions about specific measures targeting the taxi industry, but said it was working to ensure services to vulnerable members of the community.
‘It should scare everyone’
It is those people Wollongong taxi driver Steven Turanli worries will be affected if the industry folds.
“Elderly people who are tech-resistive don’t use online ridesharing apps and rely on us,” he said.
“This isn’t about Uber taking over and spreading the market, it’s much more than that.
“Without us, the most vulnerable members of our community will be even more disconnected.
“That should scare everyone.”
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