The nearly century-old cab company is making changes to stay relevant, such as a new app and a new fleet of cars.
Nothing short of a revolution is going on at Yellow Cab of Columbus. Owner Morgan Kauffman is revamping the 90-year-old taxi company from top to bottom, hoping to keep it relevant and forward-thinking in a world where ride-sharing services have been threatening its very existence.
“When we decided to change the direction of where Columbus Yellow Cab was going, we didn't start by adding electric vehicles, and we didn't start by adding technology,” says Kauffman, 48, who has been at the helm for nearly five years. “We foundationally rebuilt who we are and what we stand for. And that's been one of the most powerful things we've done.”
As the grandson of founder Frank Kauffman, Morgan Kauffman feels a deep responsibility to the company his grandfather started in 1928 with one taxi purchased from proceeds of his North Market fruit-and-vegetable stand. Soon, Frank Kauffman was buying up other taxicab companies, which eventually were consolidated under the name Yellow Cab.
The company hummed along for decades as a family business but began to falter when Uber and Lyft began operating in Columbus in early 2014, draining away customers and, in some cases, drivers. That's when Kauffman, who grew up in Bexley and ran a trucking company for 20 years, stepped in. “People talk about the taxi industry as being disrupted but I think that's evolution,” he says.
First, Kauffman looked at the company's culture and developed a single purpose for employees and drivers: To connect people to the things that are most important in their lives. “Our drivers aren't just picking someone up and dropping them off,” Kauffman says. “They're empowering people to get from Point A to Point B. When a driver feels empowered, and passes that on to the backseat customer, it comes out with kindness, a smile, while doing it all safely. We want to look at everything through the lens of humanity.”
Yellow Cab also has modernized taxi access, creating a cellphone app that allows a rider to order a cab, estimate the cost and time of arrival and pay for the ride with a few taps—similar to the Uber and Lyft apps that have become popular in recent years.
Last year, the company began using a Verizon product, Share Solutions, which allows drivers to find and reserve taxis from Yellow Cab's fleet and pay for them without time-consuming electronic paperwork. Kauffman also is experimenting with placing cabs all around the city so that drivers can access them quickly, rather than the current system of having all the taxis at Yellow Cab's main office and having drivers pick them up there.
In addition to technology, the taxis themselves are changing. Kauffman plans to eventually replace all its gasoline-powered taxis—Crown Victorias in recent years—to green vehicles. The company already uses some hybrids and Toyota Priuses in its 200-vehicle fleet and recently added 10 electric Chevy Bolts. Yellow Cab was able to purchase the pricy Bolts in part because of $30,000 in rebates from the Smart Columbus program, an initiative to make transportation in the region more energy efficient through data and technology.
Yellow Cab has been collaborating with Smart Columbus for two years, Kauffman says, including sharing GPS data to determine where electric-car charging stations should be placed in central Ohio. “Morgan has been helping us understand transportation providers,” says Mandy Bishop, program manager for Smart Columbus. “He's very forward-thinking, trying to reposition his business.”
Yellow Cab was the only company that applied for Smart Columbus' electric-car grants this year, and Bishop expects the company to apply for another $90,000 in grants Smart Columbus is offering in the fall for transportation companies to purchase 30 electric vehicles.
Kauffman also is interested in participating in a Smart Columbus project to create a multi-modal transportation app that would allow users to find the cheapest or the fastest way to travel from one point to another using more than one mode of transportation.
Bishop says the app should roll out next summer with COTA and “one other option, which could be Yellow Cab.” More modes of transportation would be added after that, she says.
Driver and passenger safety has been another priority for Kauffman. New drivers must have FBI and BCI background checks, take in-house “taxi university” classes and have mentors. Each company cab is equipped with cameras—one on the road, one on the driver and one on the back seat—as well as a GPS tracking system so that “everyone's protected,” Kauffman says.
One problem the company hasn't had, Kauffman says, is a lack of drivers.
“We have in the last few years been attracting more Uber and Lyft drivers,” Kauffman says. “They were looking for more support, and they couldn't get it with the other companies.” He believes one reason is that Yellow Cab provides more services to drivers, such as a vehicle switch-out service, available even for drivers who own their own cab, so that drivers can go back to work even if their vehicle breaks down. Competitors don't offer that, he says.
Kauffman believes that, with all the changes, Yellow Cab is on solid footing for the future.
“We've been around for 90 years and we'd like to be around for another 90,” he says. “The silver bullet is paying attention to what the customer needs.”
Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.