iTaxi grapples with desperate plight of City’s TTL operators
by Mike Beggs
The desperate plight of Toronto Taxi License (TTL) holders soon became the central issue at the iTaxiworkers Association’s Annual General Meeting, March 18 at the United Steelworkers Hall.
Of all those most severely impacted by the Taxi-Uber war, perhaps no party has got it worse than the City’s 751 TTL holders who are stuck driving blocky, noisy $70,000-plus wheelchair accessible vans, for which there turns out to be minimal demand amongst both those with disabilities and the general riding public.
iTaxi president Sajid Mughal informed the group’s 300 paying members that after countless requests, iTaxi had secured a meeting with Mayor John Tory’s office on March 20, to discuss this issue.
He then reviewed how the TTL was created as a central plank of the City’s 2014 Taxi Reforms, under which the City’s entire taxi fleet was to become wheelchair accessible by 2024 and provide on-demand service, as a far-reaching sop to the province’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). However, when Council then balked on this 100 percent provision, TTL holders were left to shoulder the responsibility for providing accessible service -- with no purchase incentive from the City nor the Province, and with the Toronto market saturated with Uber X cars further undermining their business.
“It’s really hard. TTL driving isn’t like regular taxi driving,” Mughal continued. “These drivers are not getting regular business on the street. Nobody wants to be in a TTL. But they can’t just leave and drive for somebody else, that’s a $70,000 vehicle. “
Mughal noted how in May of 2016 Toronto Council, “made everybody a Standard plate, except the TTL holders who got left behind”. He noted that they are now being allowed to lease these vehicles out, “at a time nobody wants to take them.”
An iTaxi director, Latif Gowher alleged that this was a “bait and switch” tactic on the part of the City, leading on the 290 people who received a TTL issue, and another 100 who subsequently bought their plates and committed to an accessible van.
“They promise you one thing, and then take it away from you,” he stated. “THEY created the TTL.
“They told the taxi industry you can have everything back, and left TTL’s behind. They’re not supposed to do that – not, ‘TTL for you, and everybody else is free.’”
A 26-year man named Jeyaraj pleaded, “The TTL is also part of the taxi industry. Why are they separating us? We have to be put together all in one.”
Another driver related, “We bought the TTL and have to get an $80,000 vehicle. That is from our pocket. Do you think it’s fair?
“For the past five years we have been suffering but nobody hears.”
“I drive a 2015 Sienna. There’s no business, and the cost of my insurance is higher,” added one father of four. “(Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards executive director) Tracey Cook said she would have her (one-year review of the new Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw) in the spring of 2017. We’ve waited for many months. How do we survive?”
Mughal further reported how the 250 TTL operators working TTC contract runs were initially “very happy”, but that now even they are struggling – with the vast majority of those with disabilities still opting for subsidized WheelTrans bus runs.
“If I’m very lucky I get two orders on the radio the whole week. That’s how bad it is,” one of these drivers lamented. “I never get anything on the street. With a TTL, I never get any flags.”
To this Gowry added, “Everybody knows the people working for TTC are doing side entry runs only. But the City (told the TTL’s) they could have rear entry vehicles -- so all of these drivers went for rear entry.”
To make matters worse, 35 to 40 percent of TTL drivers are aged 65 or older.
“With these 70-year-olds pushing wheelchairs, if some accident happens to somebody who is responsible? He could end up in a wheelchair himself,” observed Imran Chowdhury, an iTaxi director.
“I know a few drivers who are 75 years old. By the time they replace their vehicle, they will be 80. With all of the bills as a TTL right now, no one is willing to invest in this business -- and we were duped into it.”
With so many older TTL drivers, iTaxi vice president Adex Adeghite emphasized, “We need to get something out of it. We need a retirement.”
“But the MLS doesn’t take our industry seriously. If you don’t shout out, nobody is going to listen to you. You need to cry out.”
When questioned how many TTL drivers would be willing to replace their vehicles, the answer from the crowd was, ‘None’.
The iTaxi executive then laid out how they are preparing a Human Rights Challenge against the City. They allege the people providing TTL service are being discriminated against, and are caught in a position where there is no market to sell or lease their plates.
“If there’s one court you can count on to listen to you, it’s the Human Rights -- if you can present the case properly,” Gowry told the members. “We’ve got to get it done ASAP.”
Chowdhury suggested these drivers need to take it to the City, the Province, and the Human Rights Commission.
“This is an issue we need to fight at every level,” he added. “No one can bear your pain. You know you are losing your business every day.
“Now it’s 2018, there’s no report from Tracey Cook in sight. There’s no consultations in sight. If these people who work at city hall do not want to deal with the taxi industry, who are we supposed to talk to? The City is getting half a million dollars a month from Uber. We don’t know what they’re doing with that money. There’s no accountability.”
Speaking at the meeting, Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam called for “procedural fairness” on this issue, but explained that for a solution to come through Council there would first have to be a staff report and a motion recommended by the Licensing and Standards Committee. And she wondered whether such a motion would have the necessary support on the Council floor.
“I’m really aware your case is so clearly wrong, and there should be a way to change things,” she said. “It’s not sustainable. I don’t want to see these 751 drivers homeless.”
“Council created the program, and you were the early adaptors,” she continued. “You stepped into it first, and instead of being commended for that somehow you’re being persecuted. That’s the problem. The rule changed. We need to fix this.”
While acknowledging the iTaxi’s Human Rights case would certainly be “compelling”, she suggested taking their concerns to the City Ombudsman Susan Opler, whose office is mandated to ensure administrative fairness and is granted sweeping powers in this regard. (At least two taxi industry leaders have already contacted Opler’s office regarding the Uber issue, with no response).
“She needs to hear this. It’s the office of last resort in the City,” Wong-Tam said. “You’ve tried to go through every channel.
“I think this should be your next step, because if you talk to the Mayor’s office and to Tracey Cook, you will be getting the same answers. I think you have to find a different door.”
She stressed the City must better educate the public that they are free to flag down one of these accessible TTL vehicles, which she herself finds, “very comfortable”.
Adegbite said TTL drivers “cannot continue” as things stand. And he noted that many members of the public are now being served by 60,000-plus Uber X drivers, or other PTC’s, whom he alleges, “don’t know the bylaw, and don’t know the city.”
“I’ve been driving 28 years. I’ve never seen the streets like this,” he added. “(This sea of PTC cars), they’re damaging the streets. It’s costing the taxpayers.”
Mughal suggested hosting a press conference to inform the public that Cook will not be releasing her report until 2019.
And after the devastation wrought by Uber over the past six years, he informed members that iTaxi is in the midst of forming a co-op, and creating its own industry app to better compete.
“We need to do something so we can hurt their business. Right now the public is using Uber,” he stated. “What we are trying to do is provide what the public wants – convenience. Our app will be cheaper than taxis.”