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Taxicab business on the rise in Champaign-Urbana

By Landon Cassman/For CU-CitizenAccess -- Last year Karim Ouzidane opened Black Cab and Limo, adding one more company to what has become a taxi and limo company boom in Urbana-Champaign. 

Ouzidane, 39, came from Algeria 15 years ago with a degree in mechanical engineering. He then earned a degree from Parkland College in Cisco Networking. 

With two degrees to his name, Ouzidane said he had never planned on starting his own taxi company; it kind of just happened.   

“I was between jobs and driving a cab was supposed to be a temporary thing,” said Ouzidane. “I had no idea about taxi businesses in Champaign. I got into the business and saw that there was room for improvement, so I started Black Cab and Limo.”    

The number of licensed taxis and limousine companies in Urbana-Champaign has more than doubled since 2008, according to the city of Urbana Finance Department, which handles licenses for both cities.

The finance department approved licenses to 16 taxi and limo companies - formally known as vehicle-for-hire licenses - from July 2007 to June 2008. From July 2011 to December 2011, the finance department approved 34.

Not only did the number of companies increase substantially, but the number of operating vehicles has as well. In 2008, 59 vehicles were in operation. 

Between July 2011 and December 2011, there were 85 vehicles. 

Of the 34 licensed companies, 18 operate with only one vehicle. 

Eileen Sierra of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission said the increase stems from the need for transportation for “certain demographics.” 

For example, the elderly community, she said, often uses taxicabs because it’s the easiest option. “As people get older, their mobility decreases,” said Sierra. “It can be harder to get a bus stop. Calling a taxi is a matter of convenience.”   

In 2008, the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission released the Human Services Transportation plan that shows there are four types of limitations that keep people from driving: physical, financial, legal and self-imposed limitations.     

Citing census data from 2000, the transportation plan reported that 5,560 of the 43,618 households – or 13 percent - in Champaign-Urbana did not have a vehicle. 

That means residents had to use other forms of transportation including public transit or taxicabs. 

The 2010 Census did not gather information on the use of taxis.     

During the daytime, Ouzidane parks outside the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign waiting for people to come out.  But he said the majority of his business comes from “flags”, or people in the street hailing a cab.    

Ouzidane attributed the increase in the number of taxicab companies to the low cost of getting a license and just having to have a car that passes a special inspection. He said its also means a driver can have the benefit of working for himself.     

“I tell people all the time who ask me whether they should start their own business,” said Ouzidane. “I can guarantee one thing: you’re not going to make less than what you make now driving for someone.”   

For an applicant to receive a license, there are several things that they must be done including submitting an application, paying fees, and performing and annual criminal background check.

Fees include an annual business license fee of $150, a $50 vehicle registration fee per vehicle, vehicle inspection fees based on the condition of the vehicle, a $10 city tag and a $10 State vehicle registration fee.    

Despite the rapid increase in the number of companies operating in the area, Ouzidane said the competition hasn’t hurt his business.    

“We’re doing great,” said Ouzidane. “It’s expanding and everything. I came up with something completely different.”    

But some other taxi companies that have been around longer than Black Cab and Limo said their companies are not expanding.      

“There’s a flat line,” said Redith Ewing, owner of the Checker Cab, Yellow Check Cab and Yellow Cab -- all which have been in operation since 1987. “We’re not growing.”

Ewing said the easy entrance to the business is hurting hers.

“It’s easy to start a cab company,” she said. “Everybody has a car. You just add some signs, pay a few fees and you’re in business.”

But Ewing said she understands why people like Ouzidane would want to get into the business.    

“They don’t have a job; they have to do something,” said Ewing. “You have to give them applause for not sitting around and waiting on unemployment and public aid.”    

Before being granted a license, a driver’s vehicle must undergo an inspection by an approved garage. Depending on the age and mileage of the vehicle, it is subject to up to three inspections per year.     

“Inspections are either pass or fail,” wrote Elizabeth Beaty of the city of Urbana Finance Department in an email. “If they fail, they fix what’s wrong and have the vehicle re-inspected. We generally only receive inspections that pass.”  

Ouzidane said that taxi companies are constantly looking for drivers because so many people try it out and then give up.   

“It’s very common for a taxi driver here to put in 12 hours, that’s usually the regular shift, and walk home with like $20 or $30 dollars,” said Ouzidane. “Luckily that doesn’t happen every day. But it happens more often than you’d like.”    

Though he enjoys what he’s doing, Ouzidane said that driving a taxicab is not an easy job. 

Not only do you not know how much money you’ll make in a given day, but within the past year, there have been at least nine taxi cab robberies, according to data provided by the Champaign and Urbana police departments. 

One of those cab drivers is Fouad Bouchama.

In April, Bouchama, 47, was attacked by two passengers. The two men stole everything he had including his wallet, phone and the keys to the vehicle.     

Bouchama opened his taxi company, R&H Cab, in 2010 after being laid off. He said that he does not want to drive a taxi any longer. 

He said he will quit as soon as he graduates from Parkland with a degree in accounting, or until he finds a better job. 

The robbery only added to the stress of a job he never wanted in the first place.    

“I’m still afraid to drive,” said Bouchama. “I make sure I look at people before picking them up.”    

When one of the men began choking him from behind inside the vehicle, Bouchama tried to resist but did not put up too much of a fight.    

“If I were single it’d be them or me,” said Bouchama. “But I have kids. I’d have beaten the hell out of them.”    

The case had been closed with no leads as to the offenders, Urbana police said.

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