New for-hire cab company offers greener, cheaper ride

Abdul Yusuf had to do something else after construction on the light rail forced his South Seattle car dealership out of business.

Now he's running a "for-hire" cab company that he says is the greenest fleet in town.

Called "CNG for Hire," his company launched last week with 45 Chevy Impalas that run on compressed natural gas. It's a fuel that burns cleaner than regular gasoline, emitting 20 to 40 percent less in greenhouse pollutants.

And since it's cheaper than regular gas -- $1.82 per gallon compared to $4 -- that means lower rates for customers who need a ride to somewhere like the airport, he says.

"We can provide a cleaner car environmentally, and if we can provide a service that saves them up to 30 percent, then it's good for the consumer and it's good for the environment," said Yusuf, the company's CEO and former owner of 101 Auto Sales in the Rainier Valley.

For-hire vehicles are like taxis, but don't have metered fares and are prohibited in city limits from picking up customers trying to hail a cab on the street. All trips inside the city must be booked ahead by the customer. For-hire companies charge a flat rate or by the hour.

It's a competitive industry. Now that CNG for Hire is up and running, the company is being hailed as a local success of the federal government's stimulus spending aimed at reducing petroleum use. The company was awarded $460,000 in stimulus grants under a $300 million U.  S. Department of Energy program to help commercial fleets, including taxis,  convert to cleaner fuels.

The conversion cost averaged about $10,000 per vehicle, Yusuf said.

Locally, 200 more cabs are burning cleaner thanks to $2.5 million that went to Seattle's taxi industry through the Western Washington Clean Cities Coalition. That will reduce petroleum use by 18,000 gallons per week, or about 90 gallons per vehicle, according to estimates from the Clean Cities program.

The Clean Taxi incentive is geared toward independent cab drivers and co-ops that otherwise might not be able to afford lower-emission  vehicles.

"We knew the central mission of this stimulus money was to reduce petroleum use. What I love about the CNG for Hire story is it really did the job creation," said Stephanie Meyn, Western Washington Clean Cities program manager. "CNG for Hire is a perfect success story. A company was built out of stimulus money and that is just  heartwarming."

The company has hired 14 employees for operations, dispatch, billing and maintenance staff, Yusuf said. But the plan is to grow to about 20. Yusuf and his business partner, company president Rasheed Ahmed, who served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, want to recruit veterans returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

The company also will have work for 100 drivers to operate their vehicles during day and night shifts. The way the taxi business works, drivers are considered independent contractors and not employees. Drivers pay to lease and fuel the vehicles, and keep whatever they earn on top of that.

Since CNG for Hire's drivers will be paying less for fuel, there is potential to take more money home, Yusuf said. (On average, taxi drivers earn $10 to $12 per hour, according to city data).

The company has two offices, one in the Rainier Valley and one on the Pacific Highway in Tukwila.

The company will compete with taxis, limos, for-hire town cars, light rail and shuttle vans for business. A former taxi owner, Yusuf says he think the city needs more licensed taxis options.

Compared to a taxi ride at $2.50 per mile, Yusuf says his flat rate will average  about $2 per mile.  The rate is based on zip codes of the starting point and destination. A trip from downtown to the airport will cost $28.  Taxis, by city regulations, charge a $32 flat rate to go from downtown to the airport.

Yusuf soon will add wi-fi to his vehicles for clients to use and has equipped the cars with charging docks for laptops and smart phones.

"I'm trying to make the industry better as someone who knows the ins and outs," he said.

CNG for Hire's vehicles are licensed to operate in Seattle and King County. They're also painted green and blue, in the same shades as the Seattle Sounders' jerseys.

The taxi program focused on cabs that transport people to and from the airport because they consume more fuel. The Port of Seattle also has green fleet requirements in its taxi contract.

About half of Seattle's 900 taxis and 258 for-hire vehicles are considered green, although most -- about 400 -- are gas-electric hybrids.

Eastside for Hire and Flat Rate for Hire, two larger competitors, converted about 60  vehicles to compressed natural gas under the program. Yellow Cab, which serves Sea-Tac Airport and is the city's largest taxi association, was able to convert 70 cabs. Other associations like Orange Cab, Farwest and STITA, also benefitted.

World CNG, located in Kent, did the conversions.

CNG for Hire also received a $475,000 loan from the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, which was created to help businesses survive during and after construction of light rail on the surface of South Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

The company also partnered with Clean EnergyFuels, which owns five of six natural gas stations in the Puget Sound area, to finance the purchase of their new Impalas. The partnership helped both businesses because now there are more customers for the fuel stations, he said.

Yusuf said he wants to help the taxi  industry in finding new ways to become more eco-friendly. "We solved multiple problems from different angles," he said.

CNG for Hire's financing and business plan set it apart from other for-hire companies, which often have to put all their money into their vehicles, said Craig Leisy, manager of Seattle's Cosumers Affairs unit, which regulates taxis and for-hire vehicles
"I think if these companies have effective marketing, they could make it. There are things that work against them, and the big thing is money," Leisy said.

The other challenge is finding areas in King County that are under-served by taxis, since for-hire vehicles can't take stand-and-hail passengers at busy spots like the airport, hotels or the Colman Dock ferry terminal. (Some for-hire vehicles and Town Cars poach taxi fares anyway, which recently prompted new regulations.)

Yusuf and Ahmed, who are longtime friends going back to days in their native Somalia, previously partnered to run Universal Transportation and Translations, a company that contracted with the state to take patients to medical visits.

The city of Seattle's Consumer Affairs unit has more information about for-hire vehicles, including company names and contacts, here.​

This article was first published by Seattle Pi.

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