Is anyone at city hall paying attention to the dire state of affairs they’ve created in Toronto’s vehicle-for-hire industry?
by Mike Beggs
“Look, September is gone. We have no (report),” says Sajid Mughal, president of the iTaxiworkers Association.
The Toronto taxi industry has been anxiously awaiting the one-year Review of the new Vehicle-For-Hire (VFH) Bylaw, which was due July 1 from the office of Toronto Municipal Licensing & Standards executive director Tracey Cook.
Meanwhile, a whopping 40,000 Uber X cars are now playing Toronto streets, cutting ever deeper into the dwindling revenues of licensed cab drivers and owners.
And Mughal points out that over the past year, reports were expected from Cook on, not only on the bylaw, but on security cameras, Toronto Taxi Licenses (TTL’s), the price of taxi rides, and vehicle inspections.
“I think Tracey Cook was supposed to bring her first report in January, or February about the cameras. But she will bring it this January, or February -- when a year has gone by,” he says sarcastically.
This show of indifference has made industry members at large wonder if there’s any point in attending, or deputating at the City’s Licensing and Standards Committee or Council meetings.
“That’s a good question,” Mughal says. “It’s almost a quarter of a century I’ve been going down to city hall. Whatever we achieved in that period of time, in one Council meeting (last spring) everything went down the drain.”
“The corporations can now buy the plates -- as many as they want. There’s no need for a DOT (inspection), no need for driver training. All of these things we achieved over the years (are gone).”
When asked about Cook’s Review, long-time owner Thomas Stern responds, “It’s a long time in coming. It doesn’t make me feel optimistic.
“(The delay is) just prolonging the (cruelty). I don’t expect that much (from her report), and the situation is not very good.”
Like all owners, Stern has watched his plate, and rental values shrink down to a nominal amount, after serving Toronto consumers for many years, while following rules laid down by the City. And his retirement years now don’t seem so golden.
“I don’t think it’s just, if you’ve invested in the industry,” he says. “You’re getting nothing (now). If you put it in a bank, you would have less headaches.
“What did we do wrong? It’s pathetic.”
Of the report’s status, Best Tech Taxi owner Baljit Sikand muses, “A report will be coming, any time they want. What I’m upset about is, why are they not enforcing the bylaw?
“Right from day one, I’ve said a level playing field is the one issue to focus on. How can we compete when one side of the ground is up and the other side is level?”
He believes with a level playing field and proper enforcement, “the taxi industry can revive and survive.”
“But, I think the enforcement is mostly non-existent,” he adds. “And I believe, where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Sikand says he has seen only a handful of Uber X cars bearing the obligatory identification stickers, downtown.
“If I don’t renew my sticker in time, one week passes and they pull the plate,” he complains. “That’s what they are enforcing against the taxi industry. So, how come they don’t do that with Uber?”
Mughal estimates less than 10 percent of Uber X cars bear this sticker.
But he suggests the Uber sticker “means nothing” anyway, without an identification number to go with it. He cites several allegations of sexual assault against unmarked Uber drivers, over the past year – and points to the peril of young women climbing into an unmarked car, late at night in the entertainment district.
“They’re saying every car is dispatched through the app, but this is not the case,” he alleges. “They are just on the streets. There’s no ID number for the customer (to give to the authorities)…We have our plate number. They should have an ID number, as well.”
What more, he believes every Uber X car should have a camera, like cabs. (The Councils in several GTA municipalities have made cameras optional for Uber X drivers, at the company’s request. The company says it’s GPS technology provides added security for passengers, and that its many part-time drivers can’t afford the $1,000-plus price tag for a camera).
“If the camera is there, the public would never dare do these things,” Mughal continues. “Since we have these cameras, crimes are down by 70 percent in taxis.”
“The City, why don’t they do the right thing and put cameras in every Uber vehicle? Where are the councillors? They are nowhere. They don’t do anything without getting something back. They have no conscience at all,” he alleges.
On the road since 1988 – and now flying the “Ford Nation” flag in his cab (in support of 2018 Mayoral candidate Doug Ford), independent Mohammed Ahmed laments, “We are nothing. The City always treated us badly.”
And asked if the City’s questionable handling of Uber is a function of greed, or a lack of knowledge of the industry, he shrugs, “All of the above.”
“In the taxi industry, they were issuing plates according to population and growth of the city. They were one way, and the next thing Uber comes in and has flooded the city (with vehicles for hire),” the father of seven says.
“The responsibility for this is with John Tory, if everybody ends up on welfare. Every day, it’s getting worse. Soon, I’m going to be bankrupt. If I don’t make money, what am I going to do?”
With a sea of Uber X cars now competing with the city’s 5,000 cabs, Mughal reports, “On the weekend, people can’t move. The highway doesn’t move….You’re putting 40,000 cars on the road, for what reason?”
He’s among many who fear the City is hell-bent on deregulation.
“You know what? It’s a sickening idea,” he says.
Deregulation has had a devastating track record in several cities -- spiking the competition amongst drivers to untenable levels, while lowering the standards of service and vehicles to dangerous levels.
From Hamilton, owner/operator Hans Wienhold reports of one driver made so desperate by his City’s licensing of Uber (in unlimited numbers) that he is considering suicide. That was a path tragically followed by some 50 Dublin taxi drivers after their City’s deregulation in the early 2000s.
“Given the impact similar political malfeasance has had on Ontario taxi drivers in Toronto, Mississauga, Oakville, London, Hamilton, Ottawa, and more, I am surprised I haven’t heard of a single cab driver suicide in Ontario, to date,” he says.
“But if something like that happens in Ontario, don’t blame Uber. Blame those who facilitated it – the invertebrates that gravitate to political office.”
As a 35-year veteran, Sikand observes, “The politicians, they listen to the public. And the public doesn’t seem to complain about (Uber).”
But he stops short of saying councillors pay only lip service to taxi interests.
“I agree, and disagree,” he comments. “There is one group which goes to see the councillors saying this, and then later another group going to the councillors saying that. The Councillors see the industry is divided, but at least on the Uber issue, everybody (in the taxi industry) is on the same page.”
At this stage, several prominent industry leaders claim the industry’s lone chance for survival lies in the courts.
“(But) the industry doesn’t have the money,” he responds.
(Long-time owner/operator Gerry Manley has suggested a $15 per month contribution from all 10,000 Toronto taxi drivers would go a long way towards legal costs, and that the industry has ample grounds for seeking justice and compensation).
“I take a different approach,” Sikand continues. “If we can get $15 from each driver, why don’t we as a taxi industry get together and have one group -- so, we can lower the price, even less than Uber during the slow times. What will Uber do? They would run away.
“If we are so united, we don’t have to go to court. (We need) one app for the entire industry, and one set of rules for everybody.”
Sikand says the taxi industry needs to change with the times. To that end, he applied for a VFH license himself, and has recently put out a fleet of 80 or 90 luxury cars, running through his new “RideIn” app.
Meanwhile, taxi industry leaders continue to seek written proof that these 40,000 Uber drivers are properly registered and insured, as reported by the MLS last fall. Under the VFH bylaw, the MLS has turned these responsibilities over to Uber, in what amounts to virtual self-regulation. And by many accounts, it’s highly debatable whether or not Uber X drivers have declared to their private insurers, as required, that they are using their vehicles for commercial work.
Even Louis Seta, now an Uber driver himself, says he’s “not confident the drivers are squeaky clean.”
“They’re not giving away information. In a way, you have to take it on trust,” he comments. “The MLS doesn’t care, and they’re not interested in investigating it.”
Seta suggests the whole for-hire industry seems to be evolving towards more of a “laissez faire” system.
“Tracey Cook, she can write as many reports as she wants,” he quips. “But the bottom line is, what do the City councillors want? I don’t think the councillors care to have this whole thing become a big battle -- and I don’t see any of the public complaining (about Uber) to any extent.”
“I think this is going back to the way it was 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t think the City as a whole is looking at revamping the industry. I think that everyone is getting away with as much as they can.”
He says “a lot of guys out there are operating illegally or under the table”, and seemingly beyond the reach of Licensing staff.
“Look at what’s happening in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton. It’s difficult to analyze, and it’s just the culture of it. They’re just doing whatever they feel like, because they’re not feeling any pressure from the authorities, or even from the brokers,” he adds.
In Toronto, Stern lays fault at the door of Mayor, “because he made that statement (that, “Uber is here to stay”), and the Judge repeated it.”
“He has taken a full-time job and (turned it) into a part-time job. And some of them are not going to pay taxes,” he alleges.
“If you can’t police this, you can’t police anything. And you can’t let it be a Wild West out there.”
Oakville Mayor Rob Burton puts the present situation down to the power of the internet to disrupt the economy, citing “blockbuster changes in several industries”.
“As bad as it is for taxi drivers, it’s bad for retailers -- from Moms and Pops, to giant retailers. It’s a global economy, and the ripple effect is very powerful,” he adds.
“In Oakville, we only have two taxi companies. I don’t know what they’re going to do. All we can do is try to remove the regulatory barriers, and hope they can compete on a level playing field.”
And on the prospects of financial compensation for plate owners, Burton answers, “No government I know of in Oakville told you a $2,000 medallion was your pension.”