MLS wraps up industry consultations with plenty to think about—or ignore
by Mike Beggs
The widespread popularity of Uber X and Lyft is hard to contest. But that high-tech convenience has come at a cost – with taxi driver revenues down by more than half, plate and lease rates reduced to nominal amounts, heightened concerns about the safety of the riding public , and studies finding that ridesharing has actually increased downtown gridlock and pollution.
The state of these disruptors, known as Private Transportation Companies (PTC’s) was the focus of a consultation in mid-September, as Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) launched into its long overdue Review of the City’s controversial Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw.
The VFH bylaw took effect in July of 2016, as a means of regulating Uber, which had built up a huge ridership base while operating without a license. Led by Mayor John Tory, Council created a separate licensing category for Private Transportation Companies, with Uber granted virtual self-regulation, and allowed to put an unlimited number of cars on the road -- while paying a healthy 30 cents per run to the City.
According to MLS director of policy and strategic support, Carleton Grant, Toronto now has a whopping 68,037 PTC licenses -- the vast majority of which are Ubers – gravely threatening the livelihood of taxi operators.
“There are now almost 70,000 Ubers. Can you believe it?” asks Toronto Taxi License (TTL) driver Imran Chowdhury incredulously.
“How can you possibly support yourself when you have almost 70,000 vehicles doing the same thing?” agrees owner/operator Gerry Manley.
Manley is among those industry leaders who allege the City has a hidden agenda to destroy their business, and that granting open entry to Uber may be the final nail in the coffin.
Like many, Beck Taxi operations manager Kristine Hubbard believes by closing down both the MLS driver training school and the vehicle inspection garage under the new bylaw, the City has created, “a race to the bottom.”
Nick Arvanitakas, owner of the long-running Solid One meter and camera installation shop agrees the standards have slipped – be it Uber drivers now traveling the wrong way down one-way streets, cars not being repaired in a timely fashion, “a 6’,4” guy getting into the back of a Yaris,” or a tipsy club-goer climbing into a fake Uber by mistake at 2 a.m.
Of the City, he alleges, “You lifted all of the safety laws being stuffed down on our throats (for years), just to accommodate rampant ridesharing.”
“What do you do when you’ve got a complaint against a PTC company? (There’s no office number to call),” Manley chips in.
“They’re allowing them to self-regulate. That’s disastrous. There’s no consumer protection, it doesn’t exist.”
And while countless Torontonians, particularly the younger demographic, say they love Uber, and its push button app, taxi interests say it’s more about the money – a 40 percent saving on average.
“If it was the only service available to customers at 2 a.m. they have a legitimate point, but they have public transit, taxis and limos available,” Manley comments. “The only thing they see is to do with cost, it’s not about service. But they don’t realize they’re putting themselves at peril.”
Arvanitakas adds, “It’s amazing what people will do to get that perceived discount -- because sometimes Uber is cheaper, and sometimes it isn’t.”
The iTaxiworkers Association argues that for the City to truly level the playing field (like Mayor John Tory promised) it needs to bring back the driver training school and inspection centre, and mandate cameras in all Uber cars, like taxis, as a crime deterrent protecting both passenger and driver, and cap the number of PTC’s at the same level as taxis (5,500).
“We’ve already discussed it with the City,” says Chowdhury, 21 years on the road. “This (Review) is a good opportunity to help the taxi industry. They have to bring the driver training system back, and meter checks.”
Arvanitakas observes that since being mandated into all taxis in 1999, cameras have made a “huge difference” in terms of driver and passenger safety, proving to be a very successful crime deterrent.
“So, (by making cameras optional in PTC’s) the City is not doing their job (in terms of public safety),” he alleges. “They’re doing nothing about it.”
The PTC consultation came with heightened concerns about gridlock and pollution in Toronto, obviously exacerbated by having upwards of 70,000 PTC’s on the road.
Hubbard told the Toronto Star, the city’s streets are “absolutely, 100 percent more congested”, citing a recent report which found Toronto has the worst commuting times in all of North America. She noted this also increases the risk for cyclists and pedestrians.
Chowdhury alleges that Uber is the main cause of the heavier traffic, with many people with full-time jobs now driving for PTC’s part-time after work, and “staying out from 5 to 9 p.m.”
“They’re not professional drivers. They don’t know how to drive in this city,” he alleges. “They’re bringing this traffic, they don’t know how to make a left hand turn. They’re causing congestion.
“We’re professional drivers. They’re taking our drivers’ money.”
According to Manley, the vast majority of PTC runs happen during the morning and evening rush hour.
“Getting around downtown is horrific,” he adds. “It’s almost catastrophic, if you compare it to 10 years ago.”
Uber Canada GM Rob Khazzam told The Star, it’s “too early” to make judgments on whether or not ridesharing companies are contributing to gridlock in Toronto, (and other major cities around the world) -- emphasizing that ridesharing has only been here for three years in Toronto. (Uber first arrived on Toronto streets in 2013, and operated for three years before being licensed by MLS.)
“It’s important to study the impact of these PTC’s over a longer period of time,” Khazzam told The Star.
To this Manley snaps back, “Like the City, Uber is revenue-generated. The issue for them is, they make their money in volume -- which is based on volume of vehicles. They’re never going to address that.”
As an example of how out of hand things have gotten, Hubbard noted that with a population of 8.5 million New York City has 80,000 PTC’s, while with a population of 2.9 million Toronto has nearly 70,000.
“We can’t have an unlimited number of vehicles in our streets,” she told The Star.
What’s more, New York Council recently froze the number of PTC’s for a year, while studying their impact – given the escalating gridlock, and the impact on taxi medallion holders (many having been forced into bankruptcy, and four of them, tragically, taking their lives over the past year).
A recent report by New York consultant Bruce Schaller determined that – contrary to their claims – the presence of Uber and Lyft is actually reducing the use of public transit in major North American cities like New York, Boston, Denver and San Francisco, and car ownership is not declining, across the U.S.
He writes that, without public policy intervention, big U.S. cities are likely to be “overwhelmed” with more traffic and less transit.
But Khazzam told The Star, rather than putting a cap on ridesharing vehicles, Toronto should consider congestion pricing (a strategy employed by cities like Stockholm, Singapore, Milan, and London, under which cars pay a set fee to pass through the designated downtown core).
Arvanitakis counters that the City should restrict the number of PTC’s. For many years, Toronto taxi plates were issued from a weighted plate issuance model, only when demand was shown.
“They did it with cabs. Why can’t they with ridesharing?” he asks. ”The difference is the monstrous cheque Uber gives the City every month. That’s the underlying situation.”
Chowdhury agrees the City needs to impose a cap, post haste – as well as develop an app system for all taxi drivers, to better compete with PTC’s.
He notes that, during the 2012 Taxi Review, the City hired an outside consultant to determine the correct number of taxi plates to serve Toronto, and he concluded the City required NO additional Standard plates, and 290 TTL’s.
“They’re killing the interests of the cab driver,” he comments. “They’ve been collecting money for two years from Uber drivers. They were supposed to give an income to us. They’re supposed to help the TTL’s.”
“They have to freeze it now…. Neither taxi, nor Uber drivers are happy. Everybody has to work too hard (to get by) -- but taxis have always paid high licensing fees.”
Grant told The Star a congestion study is being done as part of the Review.
Manley suggests a cap should be combined with congestion pricing.
He notes that, in London, motorists pay a tariff of approximately 20 pounds per day to travel through a designated downtown zone.
“The regular person can’t afford $200 a week, plus parking,” he says. “They ended up with a 35 percent increase in transit ridership.”
“It should be a combination of both, because the City won’t cap it at the numbers it should be capped at.”
While originally supposed to have been filed in 2017, MLS executive director Tracey Cook’s Final Report is not projected to hit Council until the spring of 2019.
Grant told The Star the original timeline was, “too ambitious.”
But Manley alleges the entire Review is simply “smoke and mirrors”.
“This has already been decided, the report is already completed. They’re only holding the meetings because they’re mandated to by the Province,” he alleges.
“Basically, for this industry the die is cast. It will be done in five years (unless something is done). The public will get lousy drivers, and horrific service in dilapidated vehicles. (The City) took it one step further this time, from deregulation to eradication.”
Likewise, long-time owner Andy Reti foresees no concrete changes forthcoming from the Review.
“(It’s like they’re saying), ‘Really and truly, we’re going to listen to your complaints, we’re writing it down.’ It’s the same as before. I have complete confidence it’s going to go nowhere.
“What is this report going to do? The fact on the ground is 70,000 Ubers and 5,500 taxis, what is this report going to change? And Tory already told us Uber is here to stay.”
While critical of the City for not doing a better job of publicizing the consultations, iTaxiworkers Association director Mohammed “Reza” Hosseinioun is still holding out some hope for the process, after, “a good meeting for the Brokerages and Garages”.
“Everybody was asking questions, because right now the issue is how they can regulate ridesharing? That’s the major issue,” he relates. “Because if it isn’t (regulated), this cab industry will be gone. That’s what I’m getting from everybody.”
“I don’t think it’s a waste of time. I strongly believe there’s a need to do something, and I think this time they will do something,” he tells Taxi News.
“I hope they’re listening in good faith -- not like in 2014.”