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On the Job

Steering cab drivers into the app age

Vanessa Kafka, the Boston general manager for Hailo, helped launch the app’s US debut here last year.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Vanessa Kafka, the Boston general manager for Hailo, helped launch the app’s US debut here last year.

In helping to launch e-hailing taxi app Hailo’s US debut in Boston last year, Vanessa Kafka spent weeks riding cabs, talking to drivers, and doing research on how taxi markets work in Boston. “The taxi industry globally is more than 400 years old, and like anything that age, has room to grow and improve,” said Kafka, the Boston general manager for British-based Hailo.

What makes Boston’s taxi system unique?

There are about 6,000 licensed drivers here, and the cab industry, like almost everywhere in the US is heavily regulated. The medallion system — the licenses that permit taxi operation — is unique to the city. Like many places, some drivers have feelings of being taken advantage of by either the dispatcher, medallion owners, or regulators.

How does Hailo work?

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We all know what it’s like to stand on a corner, arms flailing, trying to wave down a cab. Instead, Hailo users select their location on a map and tag a nearby driver. If the driver accepts, he gets your location information and picks you up. The passenger can see in real time where the cab is and when it will arrive. The app stores credit card information, so payment is handled electronically.

One doesn’t think of cab drivers as being quick to adapt new technologies. What has the response been to the app?

When I did my taxi research, I came to the conclusion that 80 percent of drivers have smartphones, and I would argue that even more have them now. I like to emphasize that Hailo was started by three London cab drivers, because that really resonates with drivers. It’s a tight fraternity.

What is your feeling about the Boston transportation system?

Everyone knows about the transit gap, the need for rides after the MBTA shuts down and bars close in the early morning. This is a big inconvenience but proves that taxis are an important part of the transportation network.

In your many discussions with cabbies, what is their favorite route?

Storrow Drive is generally a favorite in the early mornings — drivers and passengers love the Charles River sunrise.

You have an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, which led you to working with Hailo, but you also continue to be a singer and songwriter. How does your taxi work affect your music?

I’ve met so many people from all walks of life, including taxi drivers who were former engineers, taxi drivers with PhDs and law degrees. I’ve heard stories about women giving birth in the back seat of a cab. And the start-up roller coaster forces you to stay in touch with yourself. All that makes for really good songwriting material.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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