MLS’s review gets rough ride from industry deputations at city hall
by John Q. Duffy
Taxi industry deputations were less than enthusiastic about the latest report produced by Municipal Licensing and Standards staff proposing changes to how the For-Hire-Vehicle industry is regulated by the City.
At the June 24, 2019 meeting of the General Government and Licensing Committee those making presentations uniformly brought the committee attention to alleged defects in the report, for different reasons.
Even representatives of Uber and Lyft said they saw some proposals to be potentially problematic for their businesses. For different reasons these company representatives seemed at times to have difficulty answering questions from committee members.
Gail Beck-Souter, President of Beck Taxi, pointed out that Lyft and Uber are taking rides away from public transit, saying these companies are handling 176,000 fares a day, of which about half, or 88,000, would otherwise have gone to public transit, amounting to about $20 million a day. She added these companies are significantly adding to Toronto’s road congestion problems.
She also said the PTC background checks on drivers are inadequate, and “this is important for the safety of the public.”
Beck-Souter said vehicle inspections should be held twice a year, and she insisted Vehicle for Hire drivers “must be trained.” This applies to both VFH and PTC drivers, “anyone who transports the public.”
She also commented that most taxis these days are “usually hybrid or fuel efficient.”
Her daughter, Kristine Hubbard, Beck Taxi Operations Manager, said the current state of the industry is due to a “lack of municipal oversight.”
The current lack of training is due to a “lack of policy that protects people.”
She said she was “stunned by this report” calling it “vague, at best.”
She was critical of the proposed Reserve Fund budget numbers, saying only about half of the money to be collected was accounted for in proposed help to those providing accessible service.
“Where is the rest of this money going?” she asked.
She further noted “There is no mention of wheelchair training in this report.”
She asked the committee to have staff “take it back for clarification.”
Hubbard further stated that Beck Taxi subsidizes every wheelchair accessible ride $10 per trip served by the 145 accessible vehicles working within the 1,900 car brokerage.
She stated, “This system is not sustainable.”
She said the present number of accessible vehicles in Toronto’s total taxi fleet, or 13 percent of the fleet, is enough for demand, but these vehicles’ time must be better utilized.
Cheryl Hawkes, the mother of Nicholas Cameron, the young man killed in an Uber-dispatched car a little over a year ago, spoke to the committee. Since the death of her son she has been a strong, vocal advocate for better training of all taxi and particularly PTC drivers.
She reminded the committee that her son was riding in a car driven by a man who had only the day before come to Toronto from Ottawa, who did not have a lot of experience driving in Canada, who was going the wrong way on a trip to the airport, pulled over to pick up a dropped telephone and then pulled out into live traffic on the Gardner Expressway. His car was hit by another vehicle and her son died of his injuries.
She said drivers, “Must take a course before driving the public for money.”
Earla Phillips, an Uber driver, told the committee that some of her fellow PTC drivers will log on to Uber for 8 hours, then log off and start driving for Lyft.
She said she drives for Uber for 8 hours and earns less than $11 an hour. “I’ve had $50 in fares in 8 or 9 hours. We have been seriously impacted” by Uber and Lyft “putting as many cars on the road as possible.”
She said “Thousands of us already have cameras” but she doesn’t think cameras should be on 24/7.
She also said she had been sexually assaulted while working as an Uber driver.
Taxi owner Andy Reti, in the business for 53 years and an instructor at the Ambassador training program of Centennial College, said this latest report is “full of inconsistencies and misleading information.”
He said that there are now about 700 Standard plates sitting on MLS shelves, not serving the public, turned in because there are no drivers for the cars.
He asked if the proposal to have taxi owners register a car on renewal is a “plan to rob us blind.”
He charged, “This was never on any of your agendas (during the consultations).”
Nabeel El Khafif said the PTC business is monopolized by two foreign owned companies, Uber and Lyft, and they “deliberately” squeeze driver incomes by putting as many cars on the road as they can so the drivers can not earn a livable income.
He also said these companies “exploit” their drivers and he called for a cap to be put on the number of PTC driver licenses.
April Mins, representing Lyft, was cautions about a suggestion to require cameras be installed in PTC vehicles.
“It is important to protect the privacy of drivers and the public,” she said and further said she would have to check with higher ups in the company before answering other questions.
Brian Purcell, with Toronto Atmospheric Fund, commented that PTC vehicles are heavier polluters than taxis. He attributed 300 premature deaths and 1,000 hospitalizations in Toronto annually due to polluted air, but he could not present estimates of this damage caused by ride services of all types.
Steve Keller of Co-Op Taxi said traffic congestion caused by PTC vehicles is lowering the quality of life for Toronto citizens. He also called for mandatory full snow tires to be installed on all taxis and PTC cars during the winter, not the watered down requirement proposed in this report.
Ejaz Butt of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union told the committee of efforts to unionize Uber Black drivers, saying they had signed up about 300 drivers so far. (Later in the week, this union staged a demonstration at the Sheraton Centre promoting their efforts.)
Three representatives from Uber appeared but only Adam Blinick spoke, telling the committee Uber has generated $140 million in economic activity for the City.
He said the company generally supports increased driver safety and is willing to work with the City.
Asked by Karygiannis how many Uber cars are on the road at a given time, Blinick said about 3,500.
Other deputants later pointed out that if there were only 3,500 Uber cars on the road, they would be getting 59 trips per shift, a ridiculous number.
While the City notes 13 percent of the taxi fleet is wheelchair accessible, it also says only 1 percent of Uber cars can provide this service. However Blinick says they serve accessible ride requests within 7 to 8 minutes.
Other Councillors noted Blinick was vague or unable to answer some specific questions about Uber operations while Karygiannis was asked to withdraw an accusation that Blinick was lying to the committee. He charged that the Uber rep was not being forthright with them.
Other deputants from different segments of the taxi industry and the public presented specific comments and objections to the staff recommendations.
A motion from Karygiannis to refer the report back to staff was defeated. He wanted the number of inspections to increase, require all PTC and taxis vehicles to have snow tires and cameras, driver training must include defensive driving, an explanation for taking away the requirement that all non-accessible vehicles be alternative fuel, hybrid, or low-emission vehicles, study how PTCs affect and contribute to traffic congestion look at capping the number of PTCs and PTC drivers allowed to operate, and require PTC drivers to notify their auto insurance companies that they are doing this work and also provide proof of insurance to the City.
Other motions that were passed asked staff to prepare answers to similar concerns for the next meeting of City Council.