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Designated driver Wayne Grant has been driving people, by donation, on weekends and holidays since last summer.Jeff Pew/The Globe and Mail

Wayne Grant is picking up a regular. It is New Year’s Eve and fireworks are going off, even though midnight is hours away. Ann Chambers hugs a friend goodnight, climbs into the backseat of Mr. Grant’s Dodge Ram, and gets a lift back to her apartment above The Sullivan Pub in Kimberley, B.C.

“It is only out of the kindness of Wayne’s heart that I get home,” Ms. Chambers says. “Either that or I wouldn’t go out.”

Mr. Grant was a legendary cabbie in this east Kootenay town, before the only taxi company around closed down in August. Now he offers lifts in exchange for donations so long-time customers such as Ms. Chambers, who does not have a vehicle, can get around. He is so busy on New Year’s Eve that he calls his nephew for back-up.

But the local taxi company’s demise is about more than big nights in the Purcell Mountains. About 8,000 people live in Kimberley, and many relied on taxis to deliver groceries, takeout, prescriptions, booze and smokes. Drivers conducted wellness checks. If a regular didn’t have money to pay the fare, drivers would shrug it off, knowing they were good for it.

Grant was a legendary cabbie in this east Kootenay town, before the only taxi company around closed down in August.Jeff Pew/The Globe and Mail

“The cab drivers in this town did a hell of a lot more than just go pick up people,” Ms. Chambers says, noting she can’t shop at Save-On-Foods as often as she’d like now.

Kimberley is an old mining town and, for a century, life revolved around the Sullivan deposit. The mine closed in 2001 and many of Kimberley’s residents are retirees from that era. Seniors are especially vulnerable without the taxi operation.

Today, Kimberley’s culture is influenced by its golf courses, bike trails and a ski hill with runs named after mining claims. The city is about 400 kilometres southwest of Calgary, making it a popular playground for Albertans. Many tourists and visitors counted on taxis to get from the resort accommodations on Northstar Mountain to the restaurants, pubs and attractions downtown.

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The Platzl, Kimberley’s signature pedestrian-only zone, is a mix of fading Bavarian decor and modern mountain chic, reflecting a city in transition. The Hourglass, a cocktail bar with blue velour chairs and exposed brick, replaced the old Mozart House. A 50-year-old cuckoo clock, housing a yodelling fellow named Happy Hans, stands a few feet away. Around the corner, the laundromat has been converted into an art gallery called The Laundromat, adjacent to the alley where Mr. Grant picks up tipsy customers.

Mr. Grant started offering rides on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays shortly after his former employer, L&K Taxi, closed. He says he couldn’t leave people in Kimberley stranded after all they’d done for him. He contracted COVID-19 in April, 2021, just two weeks before he was eligible for the vaccine. He spent 30 days in intensive care, another 34 in hospital, and 3½ months in physiotherapy.

“I was dang near dead,” the 63-year-old says. Locals rallied around him, raising more than $7,000.

It is unclear why L&K closed.

Grant started offering rides on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays shortly after his former employer, L&K Taxi, closed. He says he couldn’t leave people in Kimberley stranded.Jeff Pew/The Globe and Mail

B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure points to a 2019 bill requiring taxi and ride-share drivers to undergo a “criminal and vulnerable sector check” and a “driving record check” to ensure operators do not have any “criminal convictions or driving infractions that would make them ineligible to work in the industry.” The department says the taxi company in Kimberley, and one in Fernie, a mountain town 120 kilometres to the east, were “unable to produce the required paperwork for their drivers” and “chose to cease doing business.”

L&K’s owners did not return calls seeking comment. Mr. Grant, who started driving for L&K in 2009 and says he passed the government’s screening programs, says the government also demanded expensive upgrades such as electronic logs and GPS for L&K’s aging vehicles.

RCMP in Kimberley said they have not recorded an uptick in driving under the influence since L&K closed.

In the town, demand for taxis is so strong during the holidays that Mr. Grant has competition.

Cole Davies started offering rides in his 2015 GMC Sierra just before Christmas and has been going every night since. The 27-year-old general contractor isn’t in it for the money. He just wants people to get home safely.

“I almost lost my sister to a drunk-driving accident,” he says, recounting a crash from 2007 that left his sibling in a ditch with a hangman’s fracture in her neck. “If there’s anything I can do to help, that is kind of where I’m at.”

While stepping in as a designated driver for the people of Kimberley, Grant dreams of starting a new taxi company with his nephew.Jeff Pew/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Davies makes around eight to 10 trips daily, including runs to the dump and errands in Cranbrook, a larger centre about 30 kilometres south of Kimberley.

He advertises on Facebook, asking for donations in lieu of fares, hoping that is enough to stay on the right side of the regulatory regime. He has collected about $350 since starting the unofficial enterprise, with the largest payment clocking in at $50.

“I’d like to go more legitimate with it,” Mr. Davies says on New Year’s Eve. He worries about not being properly licensed and insured to drive taxi, but reckons the risk is worth it.

“People’s lives kind of outweigh the consequences,” he says. “I’m insured. I’m allowed to drive people in my vehicle. If they wish to donate to help with the fuel costs, you know, that’s all legal.”

Mr. Grant, meanwhile, dreams of starting a new taxi company with his nephew. He wants to call it E TAXI CABS. “E stands for ‘everything,’” he says, hoping the name will also wink at an environmentally friendly fleet of vehicles. He and Ms. Chambers talk about the importance of taxis – and their drivers – to a town like Kimberley as he drops her off at the Sullivan Pub, named after the decommissioned mine.

“Love you,” Ms. Chambers says outside the Sully. “Love you, too,” he responds.