Has City completely turned its back on chaotic state of vehicle-for-hire industry?
by Mike Beggs
The whereabouts of Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards’ long-anticipated one-year review of the City’s Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw has taken on added significance with Lyft cars reportedly hitting the streets before Christmas.
The news that Uber’s chief U.S. rival is coming to Canada represents yet another potentially heavy blow to Toronto cabbies, hard on the heels of Uber’s controversial take-over of the taxi marketplace.
Taxi industry leaders are still hoping against hope the city fathers will heed their desperate concerns and retool the flawed bylaw to create a more fair and workable playing field, once and for all.
After serving Toronto consumers for 46 years, owner/operator Aldo Marchese is among those who feels the City has abandoned his interests by creating open entry, and less stringent training, vehicle, and safety standards for Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s). He claims the market was already crowded with the 5,170 licensed taxis, let alone with Uber’s estimated 50,000 licensed vehicles Ð and who knows how many more Lyft cars just around the corner.
“It’s a huge mess, because the City hasn’t got any respect for the taxi industry. We’re trying to make a living, but plates have been devalued from $330,000 to $98,000,” he says.“The thing is, they basically just opened up this whole thing. They’ve accommodated Uber. Before, there was a ratio for plate issuances.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Join Uber.’ I’m not going to give them the satisfaction. I worked so hard to give them (the City) all that money, and that’s what they do to us?” he declares in exasperation.
Of the regulatory powers that be, veteran owner Stephen Hozack alleges, “Everybody’s on Uber’s side, no one is doing anything. Tracey Cook says she’s behind the Mayor, she believes in Uber. She’s not on our side. She never has been.”
Veteran driver Ron Baumber says it’s the same situation in Mississauga, where an 18-month pilot project for Uber X vehicles is underway.
“I’m thinking seriously of leaving the taxi industry. It’s impossible to make it,” he says.
“(The politicians) they dropped the ball on this, but our industry is not in a financial position to lobby against it. The fact that 18,000 pensions went out the window and nobody gives a rat’s ass (really hurts).”
“The politicians, they let us down,” agrees long-time Toronto independent David Frankel. “For decades and decades, they were on top of our industry, and all of a sudden there’s nothing. I don’t expect anything much from them.”
“Uber has more people in Toronto voting for politicians than the cab business. There’s 50,000 cars and their customers, that’s a lot of votes.”
With the passing of the VFH bylaw last spring, Beck Taxi owner Gail Souter suggests the basic attitude coming out of Council was, “The hell with the cab industry. We’ll give them a few crumbs, and they’ll go away.”
She notes Cook pushed for a court injunction against Uber when it first hit town, but alleges, “(Mayor John) Tory took her off it, and was saying in her other ear, ‘Don’t go after them.””
Cook told the Toronto Star last month she has “turned a corner” on the TNC issue, and that other issues have taken precedence ahead of the VFH Review.
“She’s a bureaucrat, and I don’t really blame her. She does the will of Council, and I think the Mayor tells her what to do all the time and she has her marching orders,” Souter alleges.
“(But) I’m very excited about this next election.”
Toronto Taxi Alliance spokesman Sam Moini sees the value of Cook’s report as being, “hit or miss”.
“It goes right to the politicians. You don’t know what they’re going to do,” he comments. “There are politicians who believe they know the industry when they really don’t, and the rules and regulations they put in, the majority of the time hurt the industry.”
“There’s nothing you can really do about it, there’s a bylaw. And they don’t want to debate taxis every two or three months, but that’s the rule that they made.”
Meanwhile, Taxi Action president Behrouz Khamseh wonders, “The rules they made for Uber, are they enforcing these rules yet?”
He notes that according to the bylaw, Uber drivers are supposed to drive a maximum of 20 hours a week.
“The core of Uber is ex-taxi drivers or ex-taxi owners, and they’re all driving around the clock to make any money,” he alleges. “And the insurance is only supposed to be for 20 hours a week.”
“Has Tracey Cook looked into this question? I don’t think they care. I think they’re hoping the taxi industry just goes away.”
And while Uber X cars are supposed to be marked with an identification sticker, Souter alleges most of them aren’t, “because the drivers they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.”
“They float around the city. They’re everywhere,” she says.
Moini suggests the elimination of the MLS inspection centre and driver training program, along with the decision to make cameras optional in Uber X is bound to create problems.
“The quality of the product is not there,” he alleges. “It’s not safe, and it’s not fully regulated. With time, people will come to realize we need reregulation. Will it be in time to save the taxi industry?”
He sees the number of sexual assault charges against Uber X drivers as one of the biggest concerns. This issue was thrown into high relief this month with a class action filed by two U.S. women who claimed they were sexually attacked by their Uber drivers, and are seeking financial compensation and government intervention to mandate Uber drivers undergo FBI fingerprinting as part of their background checks.
“The safety of the public is the most important thing,” he says. “When there are so many sexual assaults happening, it kind of becomes the norm. Some people in the media are considering it the norm now. From a safety point of view, I think the industry has to be involved.”
Souter concurs that after eight, or nine sexual assault reports in the last year in Toronto, “we’re all so numb to it. And yet if that was the taxi industry, if we had (that number of assaults) there would be screaming from the rafters.”
She worries for those Millenials particularly women -- who seem happy to hop into an Uber X car late at night, for the sake of saving a few bucks.
“I guess it’s one of those, ‘It can’t happen to me,’” she continues. “But there are thousands of women who (are being represented) in this class action suit who would say differently.”
Khamseh, likewise, criticizes the City for allowing Uber to provide its own driver background checks, and for making cameras optional.
“I think it’s terrible. We have the cameras for public safety, and Uber doesn’t,” he says. “It’s out of control. The government doesn’t care. The people don’t care. It’s all about the money.”
Baumber sees cameras as essential. And beyond his security camera, he has installed dash cams in his cab, at just $70 a pop.
“Slow motion video on a memory card. I can download it to my iPhone in two seconds. It’s crazy, it’s just so good,” he relates. “They’re on 24 hours. They never go off.”
“And I don’t think enough is made of the sexual assaults,” he continues. “We (taxi drivers) have to be accountable for what we do. We have to supply police background checks to the City.”
Similarly, Brampton Bramalea Kwik Kab president Gurmeet Mandev alleges “Bramptonians aren’t safe” riding in Uber X cars operating outside the bylaw.
“We have cameras in the car, they don’t have cameras,” he says.“The City recently (mandated) new cameras. That was a cost of $1,400 to each driver. Are their drivers safe with no cameras, no meter?”
This 30-year man stresses that Kwik Kab is the oldest brokerage in Brampton.
By contrast, he points to one female customer who said one Uber driver didn’t know where downtown Brampton was.
“Can you feel comfortable with that driver?” he asks.
And while driver earnings are down at least 30 percent since Uber’s arrival, he cites the pendulum swaying back slightly.
“Our drivers are courteous and helpful,” he adds. “We know how to take care of customers. Older people and grocery runs, we help them get in the door. Meanwhile Uber has primarily part-time drivers, whose turnover is, on average, three or four months.
“The taxi companies work with the City. They should take care of the taxi companies, not Uber.”
In Mississauga, a courteous Blue & White Taxi driver named Abdul, similarly, reports passengers and drivers coming back to cabs, in some number.
“Some customers are saying (with Uber), they don’t know the driver or if he has experience. But a taxi is safe,” he says. “At least the taxi driver has got enough training, and (a camera).”
He finds the Uber customer base is comprised mostly of late teens and twenty-some-things who “don’t care” about anything but the cheaper Uber X rates.
And, he’s hopeful for his future in the taxi industry.
“Driving is good. I’m very happy to serve the people,” he says, “especially the people who need help -- older people, or people who can’t walk. All the time I’m so happy to help these people.”
Souter is “outraged” that the City would take such measures as cutting the meter seals in Toronto cabs.
“But we’ve never had the help of the City, and I think we have this opportunity, and we’re proud. We’re the professionals,” she says.
And while “there’s no doubt the business has suffered”, over the past year she also finds those consumers who keep on top of international news gravitating back to taxis.
Frankel has no idea where the Taxi-TNC battle will end up in three or four years.
“But instinctively, I feel there’s a place for cabs in Toronto -- if it’s possible for cab companies to get together and promote themselves as a safe alternative to Uber. Uber walked into our city and saw a fragmented market.
“This whole thing is going to be with us for quite a while. Ultimately, I think it’s going to end up regulated to some degree. Common sense would suggest that.”