Business/Economy, Denver, Economy, Peter Blake, Transportation

Blake: 'Green Taxi Cooperative' hopes to speed past Uber

Line of TaxisIt may be the age of Uber and ride-sharing, but another new cab company is trying to get started in metro Denver.

The Green Taxi Cooperative is being ramrodded by a couple of entrepreneurs: The redoubtable Abdi Buni and his improbable ally, the Communications Workers of America, Local 7777.

An entrepreneurial union? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Apparently not. It’s the second time the CWA and Buni have launched a cab company. The first was Union Taxi, a co-op which has been operating since 2009.

Green Taxi presented its case to administrative law judge G. Harris Adams at the Public Utilities Commission last week.   Intervening rivals were mostly quiet during the two-day hearing. Its chances of getting an operating certificate from the full PUC are good; all the PUC can do is rule on an applicant’s financial and operational fitness; no longer can it decide, after hearing protests from existing taxi firms, that more competition in the business isn’t “needed.”

That change was part of last year’s House Bill 1316, which finally dragged the taxi business into something resembling a competitive marketplace. Local 7777 played a role in that, adding a provision that denied the PUC the right to deny a permit on the basis of corporate structure. In other words, a co-op is as legitimate an applicant as an ordinary corporation.

Buni, Green’s acting president, says the firm has $1.3 million in cash and has 275 cabs, all driver-owned, ready to roll.

Co-ops are popular with drivers because taxi companies like Metro and Yellow can charge leases running as high as $800 a week.

Jason Wiener, Green Taxi’s lawyer at the PUC, said under law the PUC must render a decision no later than April 22.

Why start a new co-op instead of simply expanding Union? “I believe in competition, I believe in more choice,” said Buni. “I look forward not only to Green Taxi but to any local entrepreneur to have a company.”

Buni, an immigrant from Somalia, is so devoted to competition that in 2010, shortly after founding Union, he spoke up on behalf of Mile High Cab, which was then seeking a PUC permit.   “If Union Taxi dies from competition, so be it,” he said at the time. “If we cannot compete, we deserve to die.”

Mile High got its permit, and both companies continue to operate, along with Metro, Yellow and Freedom.

Another possible reason for a second co-op: the PUC can apparently limit the number of cabs a company can run, even though they can no longer keep it from operating.

The CWA is helping Green Taxi even though Union, which got its start at the local’s headquarters at 2840 S. Vallejo St. in Englewood, has moved out.

“They got their own building and decided they didn’t need us anymore,” said Linda Harris, a vice president of the local.

That is a problem for unions who promote entrepreneurship. If you’re your own boss, how does the union help you? But Harris maintains Green’s members will stay with the CWA, even though there’s nor formal link. “They seem to enjoy working with the union,” she said.

They pay dues, but “they’re a little bit lower than everybody else’s,” added Harris  .

Buni doesn’t expect to stay with Green once it’s established, just as he didn’t stay with Union. After all, he has his own company to run: ABC Shuttle. It connects hotels and other facilities with Denver International Airport. Buni runs it from behind the wheel, not a desk.

“Abdi is always moving,” said an admiring Harris. “He believes that everybody in America who wants to work should be able to work without being hindered.”

Promoting small business seems like a smart move for unions. They have to offer something new, like entrepreneurship, or they will continue to represent fewer and fewer people as traditional businesses fade away.

Green Taxi also drew support from a group called the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center. Spokeswoman Halisi Vinson, an unsuccessful candidate for Denver City Council last year, said, “I’m definitely against protectionism… Taxi companies are mature industry, A little innovation and that’s good; a little disruption, good. They don’t need protection.”

Green Taxi will need more than an eco-friendly name to survive in an increasingly competitive field that now includes app-based ride-sharing firms like Uber and Lyft.

Attorney Wiener suggested Green will profit from using is using “fully integrated” technology that “leapfrogs” Uber’s. Customers can use not only smartphones, but regular computers to schedule a pickup well in advance. The same system tracks vehicle maintenance and safety. And, unlike at Uber, cash will be welcome.

PUC certificates are no longer a license to make money. But at least Green Taxi is likely to get a chance to compete with established rivals, which is all it asks.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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