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Friday, Oct. 2, 2009

Some taxi firms go that extra mile

Unique services cater to kids, women, elderly

Staff writer

Aya Ito takes a taxi every day to bring her twin 1-year-old boys to a nursery at her workplace thanks to a cab company that is friendly to mothers and the elderly.

News photo
Women drivers: Cocoro Taxi, based in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, has been providing specialized cab services for a year. NATSUKO FUKUE PHOTO

"It's impossible to take a train with twin babies during rush hour," said the 36-year-old working mother who lives in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. "The female drivers know how to hold a baby and use a stroller . . . and they loves children."

The recession and high oil prices are hitting the nation's taxi industry hard, but some companies are overcoming the adversity by offering diverse services, ranging from driving children to their piano lessons to offering a system in which people who missed their last train can share a cab.

The company Ito uses, Cocoro Taxi, was formed a year ago in Nerima Ward to provide unique services catering to women, children and the elderly.

"I felt safe because the taxi had a child car seat and a curtain. And because the driver was a woman, I could also breast-feed my baby in the car," said a 33-year-old housewife from Nakano Ward who has used Cocoro Taxi with her newborn baby.

The mother, who declined to give her name, added she would have been uncomfortable with a male driver or if the taxi didn't have a child safety seat.

With 17 female and four male drivers, the Cocoro Taxi service, run by Moro Moving & Transport Co., drives customers for the same fee as other taxis in Tokyo, except for a ¥400 booking fee.

As one of its unique services, a driver can pick up a child, drive to a registered address such as a cram school or piano teacher, and phone the parents after arriving.

For an extra fee, drivers will perform additional tasks, such as making sure that the house doors are locked when picking up children at their homes. If an elderly person is using a taxi to go shopping, the driver will help carry the bags to the customer's house.

Drivers at Cocoro Taxi have been trained on how to set up child protection seats and how to drive children safely by Zenkoku Kosodate Taxi Kyokai (the National Child-Rearing Support Taxi Association) based in Kagawa Prefecture, a nonprofit organization established in 2006 with the aim of increasing the number of taxis that can support parents with children.

According to the NPO, taxi companies that offer such help for parents are gradually on the rise, and 58 firms in 20 prefectures have registered with the association.

However, Cocoro Taxi is the only one registered in Tokyo.

"To be honest, drivers can earn more by just cruising around" than by taking customers who have booked ahead of time, said Moriyasu Yoshida, director of Moro Moving & Transport, which is mostly engaged in waste transport and entered the taxi business four years ago. Even though a taxi service based on advanced booking seemed risky, he still saw potential in an all-women taxi business.

"There were only a few female drivers in Tokyo, but their business and reputation were good," he said.

In its first year, Cocoro Taxi already has some 2,000 registered customers.

Yoshida hopes to hire more drivers so the company can also serve women who need a taxi late at night, but because the number of cabs has increased considerably since deregulation in 2002, the land ministry is reluctant to give the newcomer permission to expand.

"I hope the ministry will be more flexible (to a company like us)," he said.

The environment surrounding the taxi industry has been getting tougher every year. With the increase of cabs and a decline in customers, a driver's average daily income dropped from ¥37,710 in 1995 to ¥28,463 in 2008, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

But Yuji Nakatomi, president of Daiichi Taxi Co., which set up the all-women, smoke-free Nadeshiko Cab service in Hiroshima Prefecture, said the business is doing well.

"Although only 16 cars are allocated for Nadeshiko Cab out of 65 taxis in the entire group and Nadeshiko Cab drivers work only during the daytime, its profit accounts for one-third of that of the entire group."

Like Cocoro Taxi, the company caters mostly to women, children and elderly who feel safer and more comfortable with a female driver. Children who need to go to after-school activities can use the service on their own, the company's Web site boasts.

Nakatomi set up Nadeshiko, which means beautiful traditional Japanese women, about four years ago because he thought women could be a strong labor force in the taxi industry, which was suffering from a worker shortage back then.

"We knew why women didn't want to work in the taxi industry," he said. "They are concerned about unstable employment conditions, safety, long working hours and pay based on fares collected. So I said, why don't we reverse these?"

With this in mind, the company created stable employment conditions for women, providing a fixed minimum monthly income of ¥200,000, which is considered high in Hiroshima, to 14 drivers, who were mostly housewives. They work only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., rather than the onerous hours of most taxi drivers, he said.

It was possible for Nadeshiko Cab to give its drivers shorter hours because the company requires that customers make advance bookings.

The initial fare is ¥330 for the first 750 meters for people who want to use a taxi for a short distance.

Despite the relatively reasonable rate, the company offers prime service, Nakatomi said.

"We do not use an automated door. The driver gets out of the car and opens it for the passenger," he said.

"We also do a smile check with Omron every morning," he added, referring to Omron Corp.'s technology that purports to measure how much a person is smiling based on data gathered through facial scans.

An IT venture in Tokyo, meanwhile, has succeeded in cultivating more taxi users by offering a unique late-night service.

Last December, Kaoru Iwasaki, founder of the venture Skymint Co., established Takutomo.com, a mobile phone Web site where registered users can look for people who want to share a taxi after missing their last train. Takutomo is an abbreviation coined by Iawasaki for "taxi tomodachi" (taxi friends).

All users need to do is to sign up on the site, which is free of charge, type the starting point and destination either in Japanese or English, and specify the time you want to leave. Taxi drivers can also register and find customers through the Web site.

Iwasaki came up with the idea when she missed her last train several times last winter.

"I found it a waste to wait for a taxi" outside her station, she said, but she couldn't work up the courage to ask the other people standing around if they were going in the same direction. "So I looked for a Web site (that would introduce people who want to share taxis), but I didn't find one, so I created it."

Takutomo gained recognition by word of mouth and coverage in the media, and more than 10,000 people, mostly men, have registered in the last 10 months.

"I want to make taxi-sharing more common," she said. "Sharing a taxi is more economical and environmentally friendly."

According to Iwasaki, the company generates revenue through advertisements on the Web site and the monthly fee of ¥2,100 that taxi drivers have to pay. Although she wouldn't disclose the venture's finances, she did say "the income is increasing rapidly."

She has also created a Twitter account so people can know right away when someone wants to share a taxi.

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