Many taxi companies have started offering new services targeting pregnant women, children and the elderly to offset declining demand from their traditional customers as the economy stagnates.
Tokyo’s leading taxi company, Nihon Kotsu Co., began an around-the-clock hospital service in May for women in labor.
The service, which is available in the 23 wards and the cities of Musashino and Mitaka in west Tokyo, allows Nihon Kotsu to respond promptly to labor calls by booking the name of the customer’s chosen hospital and her due date and phone number in advance.
The customer is charged ¥400 for advance booking on top of the meter fees, Nihon Kotsu said.
Katsumi Noguchi, a corporate officer at Nihon Kotsu, explained that soon after the service began, several hundred women were registering each day.
“Although the number has declined, we still receive about 40 registrations every day,” he said.
In the runup to the service, Nihon Kotsu obligated all of its 7,000 drivers to get basic knowledge from midwives about deliveries and what they need to have in mind when picking up and taking pregnant women to the hospital.
“Some drivers were concerned, saying ‘What if the woman’s water breaks in the car?’ or ‘What should I do when a baby is born in the car?’ ” Noguchi said.
“But they all learned that a woman won’t give birth so soon after labor starts and there is no need to worry, even if the woman’s water breaks on the way to the hospital, as she is supposed to bring a towel with her to cope with such a situation,” Noguchi said.
Nihon Kotsu now takes 10 to 15 women in labor a day on average to the hospital, according to Noguchi.
Another taxi company in Tokyo, Checker Cab, has also offered a similar service since April 2010. The company said it has received an increasing number of inquiries from expectant mothers about the service.
Taxi companies nationwide have also turned their eyes to children and the elderly.
Popular services include taking children to nursery or cram schools on behalf of their busy parents or giving elderly people a ride to the hospital or store, and even sometimes accompanying them inside.
To improve the services, some companies ask drivers to obtain a license for a nursery teacher or nursing care worker, or get training, according to the companies.
The companies expect the services to help create more demand during the daytime, traditionally a less busy period for taxi operators.
“As many businesses and government offices now use taxis a lot less than before, we need to add value to our services and cope with new demand,” said Toshihiro Akiyama, head of the public relations office at the Tokyo Taxi Association.
Excluding taxis operated by owner-drivers, there were 1.5572 billion instances of ridership nationwide in fiscal 2010, about 30 percent less than in fiscal 1995, according to data by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
Nihon Kotsu also started a dispatch service last December using a smartphone application based on GPS data that let a customer pinpoint his or her location on a map for quick pickup by a driver.
“I like the service as I can find a taxi even at places where taxis are not running,” said a 64-year-old man from Tokyo who has used the service three times.
In October, Nihon Kotsu expanded the service to 62 affiliated groups in 31 prefectures, involving 14,500 taxis nationwide.
The industry has begun considering developing a common smartphone application for such a dispatch service.