‘It’s like sitting in the middle of the ocean— no one can hear you’
by Mike Beggs
As many Toronto cab industry members would tell it, they’ve only been thrown further “under the bus” after Council’s July 18 approval of the amended Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) Final Report recommendations.
Two years overdue, they say it fails to even mention several of their core issues raised repeatedly in consultations, and in correspondence. Front and centre would be the vast oversupply of cars on the road, with Private Transportation Companies (PTC’s) granted open entry under Bylaw 546 (2016). This is documented as a serious cause of traffic congestion, and a decline in the use of public transit and cabs in a just-released study by Ryerson University.
Taxi operators say they’ve been left stranded and hanging by a thread, as the number of PTC vehicles proliferates by the day (now at a staggering 90,000), reducing their revenues by 75 percent, and all but completely wiping out plate and lease values.
“After all this (waiting around), it turned out to be futile -- very, very pathetic, small changes,” Tom’s Taxi owner Tom Drimoussis says of the MLS report.
“It’s like sitting in the middle of the ocean. No one can hear you.”
Owner, and retired driver Stephen Hozack claims there’s, “nothing, nothing at all for the taxi industry in there.”
“I find this a big joke,” he says. “We’re nothing to them.”
“The Uber drivers, they do anything they want. We’ve got all the rules (placed on us) -- cameras, meters, it’s unbelievable. And no one cares.”
A plaintiff in the owners’ proposed class action suit against the City, Behrouz Khamseh deems the amended recommendations, “Disappointing for sure, after three years. I don’t see any way to improve our situation, which is worse than it was (in 2016).”
“(In this report), they’re talking about congestion and fuel-efficient cars, they should have thought about that before they allowed all of these people in (under open entry).”
Independent Toronto Taxi Inc. president Mike Tranquada says the changes found in the Final Report are “not tough enough -- not until they start examining the PTC drivers’ insurance.”
Of the unlimited entry granted to PTC’s, he agrees, “That’s just not right. We’re turning everybody into a part-time business, and most of them aren’t making any money.”
“And with all the extra competition, everybody is having more accidents, so insurance rates are going to up.”
He says it’s a sobering realization that, “Slowly, Uber is putting most of the fleet operators out of business, because nobody can get two drivers, so plates are leased or bought by one person. They’re going to drive it themselves, so you have half the number of fleet drivers you used to have.”
Many industry leaders allege the City, once again, only paid lip service to their input at Review consultations.
“Sadly, this has been their m.o. for the past 50 years. Why change now?” says owner Andy Reti, who claims the report is, “full of inaccuracies, and misleading information.”
While the City’s General Governance & Licensing Committee (GGLC) sent this report back to staff for further study on June 24, in the end the Final Report recommendations from MLS executive director Carleton Grant saw only minor tweaking. They passed by a 22-1 count, as moved by Councillor Paul Ainslie.
Much space was dedicated to the implementation of mandatory driver training for all 90,000 PTC drivers, and taxi drivers, but with few specifics laid out.
The revised recommendations state that by the end of 2020, all VFH drivers must show proof they have passed a “third party training program.” While Council directed MLS staff to consider an in-car and class component (covering such topics as defensive driving), it will be left up to Grant to decide the training format. PTC drivers will now require three years driving experience, up from one.
After Council, Beck Taxi operations manager Kristine Hubbard told the Toronto Star, “we still have no idea” whether this training will take the form of Beck’s own one-week mandatory training program delivered by Centennial College, “or just watching a five-minute video.”
Similarly, Cheryl Hawkes, whose son Nicholas Cameron was the victim of a traffic fatality in an Uber last March, told The Star, “It’s a small win.”
“We want a real training course, not some online training course that someone’s relative or friend can take,” she stated.
At GGLC, Beck Taxi management noted the industry has waited three years for a report which failed to consider putting a cap on PTC’s (or to even mention the groundbreaking cap implemented by New York City last summer), how police background checks could have reduced the dozen sexual assaults committed by PTC drivers, or the “missed opportunity” to require PTC operators to put on hybrid, or fuel-efficient vehicles (like taxis have been mandated to do).
“In 2016, in the name of innovation the clock was turned back on these items to pre-1998,” Hubbard deputated. “The bar has been lowered on protection, when it comes to public safety, but also when it comes to the environment.”
“I understand PTC companies are looking for the path of least resistance, but defensive driving has to be learned in a car.”
Hawkes alleged vehicle-for-hire safety standards have been eroded by Uber, and Lyft’s, “lobbying on steroids.” And, she noted a 32-year-old woman was (only recently) killed on Highway 401, while a passenger in a ridesharing vehicle.
“It’s time for Toronto to (draft) some rules of our own, and make our roads safer. Please don’t help Uber, and Lyft achieve their corporate goals, over the goals of a whole city,” she urged committee members at GGLC. “I think there are omissions and gaps in the report. It’s just too weak somehow. It’s too loose.”
In-car security cameras remain optional in PTC vehicles, despite having been proven to be a successful crime deterrent in cabs.
“They’ve done nothing here to protect the people. This week alone there were two sexual assaults in Toronto,” Drimoussis concurs. “The congestion? They say they need to study a report? How about the Ryerson Report?”
Both Uber and Lyft representatives told The Star they look forward to working with the City on driver training, which must be completed by the end of 2020. Uber lobbied long and hard against driver training, mandatory cameras, and other such safety measures in 2016.
Owner/operator Gerry Manley puts this staff recommendation down to optics, after Hawke’s enormous efforts to draw public attention to the need for proper schooling of drivers.
“Be assured that the City will not undertake the training of all VFH operators, as that would dip into their licensing renewal fees. You can bet this will be outsourced to a community college, and the City will say they collaborated on setting the curriculum,” he offers. “This whole exercise is nothing more than a public relations endeavour.”
Mississauga plate-holder Peter Pellier suggests the training will, more than likely, be, “Mickey Mouse”; and he alleges a “feigned enthusiasm” on the part of Uber and Lyft.
“As long as no cap is put on the number of allowed operators, both companies are more than willing to participate in any change that purports to resemble regulation,” he suggests.
With the huge competition for fares on downtown streets, GGLC heard from taxi AND PTC drivers who say they are suffering mightily.
“Drivers working 14 to 15 hours a day to make a living. Certainly, this is not what Uber and Lyft sold us two or three years ago,” Councillor Jim Karygiannis observed.
While supporting Ainslie’s motion, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam voiced serious concerns about the VFH Bylaw, and its far-ranging effects.
“In 2016, there was a fierce battle here. The Council decided safety for passengers was not a priority in Toronto. We went out of our way to make it easy for Uber and these other companies to get what they wanted,” she stated.
“And, what have we done to our taxi industry? We have decimated them. We have made life so difficult for these drivers, and their families.”
She emphasized, if there are 90,000 PTC drivers, “you are incentivizing them to get out there and make a buck.
“Uber, they claim they only have 3,500 cars on the road at any one time. I’m not buying it,” she continued. “They seem to be circling and circling every single block in the downtown corridor.”
Councillor Gord Perks moved an unsuccessful motion to banish ridesharing services from Toronto completely, on July 18. He claimed the City has shirked its responsibility to provide public safety, in order to accommodate these massive foreign companies, “which rely on precariously employed drivers.”
Afterward, Nick Arvanitakis, owner of the long-running Solid One taxi meter and camera installation shop observed that, “There was a little bit of a shift on Council.”
“I think, on the two big issues, safety and congestion, there was no pro-Uber sentiment at all,” he tells Taxi News.
“But even though the councillors were complaining about Uber, they’re not going to (get rid of Uber). It’s a big corporation. They can’t do it politically (with the Mayor’s staunch pro-PTC stance).”
Elsewhere in the report, he claimed the City is “killing us” with the establishment of a new $5-million Accessibility Fund to subsidize TTL accessible operators, coming at the further expense of taxi, limo, and PTC operators.
“And they’re coming up with a new definition of cameras. I think they’re just going to lower the specs,” he adds. “I’ve seen other cities do it, and it’s just a huge mistake.”
Plate owners could take some small measure of relief with the removal of Recommendation No. 63, which proposed that a plate must be tied to a car to be renewed – even if it is sitting on the shelf. But far from grateful for this amendment to the report, Reti was still seething afterward, deeming it, “the single meanest recommendation in my 50 years in the business.”
Khamseh put its removal down to the City, again, keeping up appearances.
“This is a game they play, because of the (shoddy) work they have done, and the problematic conditions they’ve created,” he alleges.
He claims the powers-that-be at city hall, “don’t want to know about the collapse of the taxi industry, because this is something they’ve created themselves.”
“What are you going to do about taxis?” he asks. “We’re going through hell.”
“(They’re telling us) we have to be competitive. No. 1, how can I be competitive when somebody charges half of my price? And No. 2, who set the price for me? Who set the meter at $4.25? The City. This is the City making all these decisions, not me.”
Of the lack of help for the taxi industry found in the Final Report, Hozack alleges it’s all by intention.
“They know the (class action) suit is coming up. They’re putting more and more pressure on us. They’re trying to break us,” he offers.