Life As A Female Cab Driver

December 4, 2013

Jagdeep Grewal's husband told her she was too dumb to drive a cab. When she got her licence anyway, her son wouldn't talk to her. She doesn't show me a picture of either of them during a recent fare from Richmond to Vancouver. Instead, she swipes through her iPhone to a black-and-white portrait of her father, Hardas Dhillon, once a wrestling bigwig in the Mumbai film industry.

He died when Grewal was eight. After that, she was sent to live on her grandfather's farm, where she learned to drive tractors. "Even at that age, all I wanted to do was drive," says Grewal, 48, one of just a handful of female taxi drivers in the Vancouver area.

Her husband sponsored her to Canada after she married (to comply with her family's demands). She was 18. "My life totally changed. I went from working with my grandpa on the farm where I could do everything-drive tractors, ride horses-and came here and I didn't understand English that much and didn't know how to do kitchen work."

That was 1985; her daughter was born the next year. When she started working outside the home again, it was as an office cleaner. But her inability to vacuum fast enough kept her at the job all night instead of the four hours the task was meant to take.

"My husband would fight with me a lot. I knew I wanted to do something. But ladies don't have that much choice. Everyone was harassing me-my husband, my in-laws. I talked to my brother and he said, ‘Get a licence. I will train you to drive a truck.' " They worked together, then Grewal began running her own truck. She had two more kids, and her sister and mother took care of them while she did her long hauls to Calgary, Winnipeg, London, and Montreal. For 14 years she was happy to have the freedom to leave the house and happy to come home to see her kids again.

When her daughter married in 2005 and began having her own children, Grewal decided to stay in town. She drove a school bus, but there wasn't much money in it. And she wasn't on the road enough. "Then one day my husband's nephew came to the house and said he's driving a taxi and heard there was one other lady driving a cab. My husband said, ‘You can't do that. Smart people drive cabs-not dumb people like you.' "

She booked the taxi-host test and passed the first time. Continue reading…

Shashi Engineer, general manager of Richmond Taxi, says of 350 to 400 drivers, just six are women-more than at any of the other cab companies in the region. Another female driver came from long-haul trucking; the rest worked in care facilities and seniors' homes. "Women drivers are the best drivers because to them it's not just getting from one place to another," he says in his office on Voyageur Way. "They are really passionate about driving, really care about giving the passenger a good experience. Men automatically think they're good drivers."

"No one is a better driver than me. I can say that honestly," says Grewal, eyes focused on the road. Heading over the Oak Street Bridge she does not weave through commuter traffic to beat the slower vehicles. By the next red light she catches up to those who sped around her. Not once does her odometer pass 61.

After a couple of years driving someone else's cab, Grewal began thinking of buying her own licence. To share a plate with another driver/owner cost $130,000. By the time she made up her mind, the price had gone up to $180,000. Now her half-plate is worth $240,000, she says. She earns between $200 and $300 a shift; on her best days, when she can pick up trips to Whistler, she gets out from behind the wheel with $700.

Yellow Cab general manager Carolyn Bauer says in over 20 years, she has seen fewer than 30 female drivers in the different fleets around the region. "There may be a fear issue, the concerns about safety," she says. "But this is a tough job-not just about who's in the back seat and who you may pick up who's drunk too much, but tough in that you're dealing with a lot of different personalities. Some people are happy; some are having a bad day or a bad week. With some, it's a bad life and you've got to deal with that as long as they're in your cab."

Grewal says she has no problem pushing back. "Being strong is something you can work on. I'm a heavyweight lifter; I can lift 100 pounds," she says as we pull in front of my destination. "I've never been scared of anything. I don't know if that's something God gave me, but I can't remember ever feeling afraid. Maybe the people who sit behind me see that.

"After I got my licence, my older son didn't talk to me for six months. But after a while, everyone is okay. My husband says, ‘Maybe you have a boyfriend there.' Whatever he says I agree with him, but I say, ‘I'm not leaving my job. You were the one who challenged me. You said ladies can't do that.' I have to tell him ladies are in every field."

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