Bill Johnson is owner of Ace's Taxi in Medford. Johnson is a solo start-up driver and started his business during the recession. - Jamie Lusch

Driven to succeed

Bill Johnson, a family man with a wife and four kids, wasn't sure which way to turn after he left Valley Cab last April.

Then a friend offered financial backing to start his own taxi service.

By the third week in June, the 33-year-old Johnson was picking up passengers arriving at the Medford airport terminal and ferrying late-night revelers from local bars.

Tough hours, but nonetheless a worthwhile venture to date.

"When I was working for Valley I had set hours," Johnson says. "But when you're working on your own, you are always on call."

Instead of leasing a vehicle from a cab company, Johnson drives his own vehicle. Minus fuel, insurance and maintenance expenses, he keeps what he collects from a dozen to two-dozen fares during his late afternoon to early morning routine.

There are at least a dozen taxicab companies in Jackson and Josephine counties, with most operating more than one vehicle.

Johnson's company, called Ace's Taxi, and ABC Cab, operated by Gary Davidson, are self-employed owner-operators, competing for a piece of the action.

"A friend approached me and wanted to sponsor me in starting my own business," Johnson says.

"I had a week to think about it. ... I told her it would take a minimum of $1,500 to start, covering the insurance, stickers, business license and the taxi card."

Johnson was a Navy brat, following his Seabee dad from Puerto Rico to Guam, the Virgin Islands, Whidbey Island, Wash., and San Diego.

He arrived in Medford 15 years ago and worked for a masonry firm prior to joining Valley Cab in 2008.

Typically, he starts his shift at the airport about 3 p.m. and waits along with cabs from six or seven other companies. On a good day, he'll start six trips at the airport.

"When gas prices are too low, it makes it hard for (cab) drivers," Johnson says. "People are able to drive or have somebody come pick them up. When I was first at Valley, they would get a call every hour and 45 minutes. But when gas prices hit $4, the calls came every 10 minutes."

The last incoming commercial flights hit the Tarmac about midnight; shortly after that the hub of taxi activity shifts to the intersection of East Main Street and Riverside Avenue — the epicenter for downtown drinking activities.

"About five agencies hang out down there," Johnson says. "It can produce one to 30 rides on a given night. It depends on if a person is smart enough to take a cab or stupid enough to get a DUI."

The police are lined up, too, on Friday and Saturday nights. Johnson says from his experience, it would be better if they queued up on Wednesday nights "when they have the battle of the bands, where everybody thinks they can drive home."

Friday and Saturday are high-revenue nights — "We're usually slamming midnight to 3," Johnson says, noting fares run the gamut from "uptight to laid back and frisky."

"Actually, they treat us like they treat their hair stylist. They come in and tell us their problems, we just don't get the $100 an hour that they'd pay their therapist."

Johnson says he spends about $20 a day on gas and travels 500 to 600 miles per week in his 1994 Nissan Quest van. He plans to upgrade his ride to a 2001 Ford Windstar in the near future.

When demand exceeds his availability or he's too tired to drive, Johnson passes calls on to fellow independent driver Davidson, who started his own ABC Cab (541-621-8724) service in July.

Davidson labored eight years for Mount Shasta Spring Water before becoming a driver. He says he prefers working for himself, setting his own hours and keeping his own revenue — $3 a drop on the meter and $3 per mile thereafter.

"The hours are more flexible." Davidson says. "And, someone else isn't raising and lowering your rates or raising your lease."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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