Few expect sorry state of Toronto’s vehicle for hire trade to receive honest airing in forthcoming MLS review of City’s so-called ‘level playing field’
by Mike Beggs
Why did the City of Toronto legislate and regulate one ridesharing company (the since-departed Hailo) under the then existing taxi bylaw, while for three years it allowed Hailo’s ridesharing competitor, Uber, to operate with complete impunity?
Add that to the burgeoning list of questions the taxi industry has for Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards executive director Tracey Cook, when her one-year anniversary Review of the new Vehicle-For-Hire Bylaw finally surfaces.
In a recent dispatch to city hall, veteran owner/operator Gerry Manley notes that, before Hailo was allowed to operate in Toronto, it had to obtain a taxi brokerage license and work under the same rules as any licensed taxi brokerage (which included strict limits on vehicle access, as they could only have licensed city taxi owners and drivers working on their app).
But, Manley’s correspondence continues, when Uber came along in 2013, they were allowed to operate for over three years without obtaining a city brokerage license, and worse, the company was permitted completely unfettered access to vehicles allowed to work on the Uber X app Ð effectively deregulating and destroying the city’s taxi industry, Manley alleges.
What’s more, he says the resulting financial devastation is clear proof that the City disregarded the fourth principle of its own Taxi Review (passed by Council in October, 2012), which stated in part, “That the economic viability, and sustainability of the taxi industry has been added as a fourth key principle in the Taxi Industry Review.”
With Cook’s Report now officially behind schedule -- and not expected before the September meeting of the Licensing & Standards Committee -- Manley has redoubled his efforts to have the controversial new bylaw scrapped in its entirety.
After having his many e-mails basically disregarded over the past year, he recently fired off a weighty missive to one and all at city hall, outlining, “what the industry feels is unfair, or illegal in the new bylaw. (Similarly, Taxi News received no response from Cook’s office to an interview request).
He maintains the VFH bylaw contains, “a great deal of unfairness, and conflicts of statute (both within the bylaw, and in other senior statutes). And he suggests the City of Toronto Act (2006) “is the holy grail allowing the City to be in conflict with, or violate any senior statute they so desire.”
He says the City has Ð blatantly -- done just that by requiring plate owners to pay a new VFH Driver’s License, in addition to their annual plate renewal fee.
And he points to the unlimited access granted Uber, as, “the most damaging and intrusive violation of the social contract arrangement between the City and its taxi industry membership.” He purports that Toronto streets are saturated with as many as 39,000 Uber X cars, 5,200 taxis, 1,200 limousines, and 750 Greater Toronto Airports Authority licensed taxis and limos, “servicing a clientele that, in reality, can financially support no more than 3,500 combined taxis and limos.”
“The City’s taxi industry members predicated theirs’ and their families’ financial livelihoods and retirement futures on a restricted vehicle access that now, without consultation, warning, or compensation has been wiped out,” he adds.
Manley warns that, as industry members get pushed nearer and nearer to the breaking point, “the day of reckoning is close at hand for city hall, when it comes to taxi regulation. He maintains a class action suit may be the only recourse left for the shell-shocked industry to find any semblance of justice, after seeing driver revenues, plate values and lease rentals devastated.
“This bylaw needs to be quashed in its entirety, and City Hall needs to return to the table with no hidden agenda, and come up with something that is a true fair and level playing field Ð not the fairy tale fair and level playing field Mayor Tory purports the present bylaw accomplishes.”
Other industry leaders were, likewise, hardly shocked to see the July 15 one-year anniversary of the VFH bylaw come and go with no sign of Cook’s promised report, nor any communication whatsoever.
“It’s hard to tell (whether that’s a bad thing, or a good thing). I get nervous about reports. Who knows what they’re going to write?” says Toronto Taxi Alliance spokesman Sam Moini.
“I think the industry wants to improve the situation. (We want to ensure there are safe) vehicles on the road. We want to make sure the environment is taken into consideration, (as well as the taxi industry membership’s) economic welfare. We will see what happens when she puts out her report.”
According to Moini, the TTA’s number one concern is safety, given the shutdown of the MLS Vehicle Inspection Centre, and the Driver Training School over the past year, and the relaxed rules on cameras and driver screening for Uber.
“We want more rules on public safety. We want to make sure Uber is as safe as taxis Ð in terms of cameras, and insurance,” he adds.
“There’s very little protection in the PTV’s (Private Transportation Vehicles). They don’t have any cameras. Their drivers are very nonchalant about their work, because they’re part-time workers,” he alleges. “The majority of taxi drivers are full-time drivers, they take their jobs very seriously”
The TTA also wants all Uber X drivers to show proof they have informed their insurer they are using their private vehicles to carry commercial passengers.
“There’s only one way: by legislation,” he says. “The City has the authority to do that.”
The group also wants a cap placed on the number of PTC vehicles, given the Toronto taxi industry was built upon the premise of controlled entry of vehicles.
“I think you have to put a regulation on this business,” he comments, “because it’s a moving business. It’s not a stationary place, where you have zoning.”
Veteran owner/operator Al Moore deemed the delay in Cook’s report just the latest example of the lip service paid to the taxi industry, over the past several decades.
“We have never had input,” he says. “They let us speak, but they never hear what we say. It’s already a foregone conclusion. A lot of these officials don’t understand the industry, but they want to get their agenda filled.”
Long-time independent Aldo Marchese was outraged by the silence emanating out of city hall.
“There has been nothing,” he fumes. “There has been no information. They haven’t given any reports.”
Some 50 years on the road, Marchese deems it “mindboggling” the way two different sets of rules have been applied to taxis and Uber.
“I think it’s way out of control. I lived by every rule, just like everybody else.
“It just seems everything is against us, and it’s very hard for us to make a living Ð especially with all these Uber drivers working. We’ve lost 40 percent of our business.”
He points to cameras, which are a proven deterrent to crime in Toronto taxis, providing an image which can be downloaded by Police.
“What do they check with Uber drivers?” he asks. “How do you know when there’s something going on between a driver and a passenger, and she says, ‘He sexually assaulted me.’ You have no proof, there’s no evidence. You know who gets charged? The driver.”
On the status of the Review, long-time driver Gary Walsh alleges, “The public is in great peril from sexual assaults. But (Tracey Cook is) under marching orders to support Uber, so she’s going to delay it as much as she can.”
“Do you think they really give a (damn) about putting out a report?” chimes in Lucky 7 Taxi owner Lawrence Eisenberg. “Everybody here knew it wouldn’t come out when it was supposed to.”
Does he expect to see some changes recommended to the bylaw, when it finally arrives?
“Probably not. Unless they write another one, which is possible,” he continues. “But I think the bylaw is basically written in stone.”
“No one can do anything about it, because the City is too strong. The only action that can be taken against the City is the Charter of Rights, and the Canadian Charter has not supported the taxi industry to this point.”
Further to the point, he suggests Uber simply has, “too much money, and they’re liked by too many people.”
“Look at Uber, and the money behind them. They can do advertising and spend as much as they want. By the time it gets to court, the taxi industry will be done.”
He’s among many who believe the open entry granted Uber is part of the City’s long-time hidden agenda to deregulate the cab industry.
“It’s getting there, and Uber helps,” he offers. “It’s part of the City’s plan, absolutely. Kill the taxi industry, use Uber.”
He agrees that the safety of the riding public is a big concern in Uber X cars.
“These guys are not being trained and are putting everybody at risk Ð the public, and the insurance companies,” he continues. The City screwed up on both the inspection centre, and the training of drivers. It’s only a matter of time (before there’s a serious accident, and law suit).”
“We will find out how well insured they are. That’s the bottom line.”
One Brampton cabby agrees, “It is a time bomb. The idea of Uber and insurance companies going head to head is yet to come, and it’s coming.
“It’s like we’ve got a shortcut (trading off safety for the cheaper Uber X fares). But it’s a minefield. Do you want to go that route?”
Eisenberg, suggests Uber’s shuffling in of new drivers every two months can just go on forever Ð claiming that newcomers are “gullible” and susceptible to Uber’s feel-good ads on TV and radio.
“We’re aggravated and frustrated and everything that we try (hits a roadblock),” he says, of the taxi membership.
“At the moment, everyone is afraid of making moves. There’s basically not one legal firm willing to take anything on at the moment.”
For his part, Manley suggests, “Political and bureaucratic resolutions to our issues will never come to pass and we need to take the municipalities to court along with the Province, all of whom were made aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it Ð even though it is and was within their privy to do so.”
Owner Peter Pellier suggests the situation is “even more diabolical” in Mississauga.
“Council amended the Public Vehicle Licensing Bylaw by incorporating the Capture Option, obligating Uber to use the services of licensed cabbies, and cabs only. And in the same breath, Council adopted an 18-month pilot project that has enabled Uber to operate in accordance with its own business plan,” he observes, in a July dispatch.
And he says further insult was added to injury when unanimous approval was given to issue 38 additional taxi plates, although a number of plates continue to sit on the shelf.
“I’ve lost total respect for the folks at City Hall,” he adds. “Their actions with respect to the taxi industry have been nothing short of unconscionable.”
Hamilton owner/operator Hans Wienhold shares similar concerns about the aforementioned safety issues.
“For some time now, I have been trying to draw the attention of politicians in some Ontario jurisdictions to certain dangers attached to their suspicious embrace of the Uber taxi company. In addition to Uber’s obvious disregard for the law, and dubious insurance coverage, there are also issues of passenger safety,” he alleges.
“I have not received a single reply from a single politician, or hired bureaucrat, addressing the obvious and predictable safety concerns. I have attempted to warn them.”
Wienhold points out the dangers associated with using unmarked vehicles as taxis, because, “it provides ample opportunity for criminals, and stalkers.”
“From what I have seen, the
politicians and bureaucrats who have complied with Uber’s demands that their bylaw be amended to fit (Uber’s) business model have given nothing but empty lip service to their claim that safety is one of their “core values”,” he alleges. “The evidence suggests that safety is barely an afterthought when it conflicts with corporate privilege.”