Observers hold out little hope for unbiased City review of botched VFH bylaw
by Mike Beggs
How will the ongoing Review of Toronto’s Vehicle-For-Hire (VFH) bylaw ultimately take shape, given the recent departure of Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) executive director Tracey Cook, the staging of a second round of industry consultations last month, and the secret hiring of an outside consultant?
That’s a big question for taxi operators, whose industry is hanging together by the thinnest of threads.
It was Cook who oversaw the implementation of the much-maligned VFH bylaw in 2016, licensing Private Transportation Companies (PTC’s). Taxi industry leaders assert this tilts the playing field heavily in favour of PTC’s, with the City turning its’ back on their financial viability while lowering service and safety standards across the for-hire industry.
But with Cook becoming Toronto’s new Deputy City Manager, Infrastructure and Development Services, effective January 30, it will be up to her successor Carleton Grant (previously MLS Director of Policy & Planning, Strategic Support) to assimilate the results of the latest consultations, and drive the Report home for a projected June 26 release.
Not that cab industry leaders are expecting much help from this long-overdue Report. They say the City has a long history of paying “lip service” to their concerns, while proceeding with a “hidden agenda”, to wipe out the value of the Standard plate.
Owner/operator Gerry Manley predicts the industry will, “end up in worse condition than it was before the Phase meetings began.”
“Their plan of action is already in place -- Chapter 546. They want to get an unlimited number of PTC vehicles on the road,” he alleges.
“The City has made its choice as far as the direction they want to take the taxi industry, (they want to eradicate it).”
Despite the change in executive director, he expects much the same report to emerge.
“Because they follow Council, and Committee’s direction. They just gather data, whether it’s Tracey Cook, or Carleton Grant,” he adds.
When asked why the City staged a second round of consultations, long-time owner Andy Reti retorts, “Because they want to confirm what they want to hear.”
And in early March, Reti, (recording secretary for the group All Taxi Owners and Operators Ltd., which is driving the proposed $1.7-billion-plus class action suit against the City), issued a statement denouncing the process.
“We wish to draw your attention to the fact that LAST FALL there was a consultation already, and we were under the impression a report was to be presented as a result of those consultations,” he wrote. “In view of the fact that the Council-mandated Report was to be presented in 2017, and NOT sometime in 2019, our organization at this time is waiting for the report before we comment on it.”
He said ATOOL feels very strongly that, “our industry is devastated”, and, “does not have any confidence” that the MLS report will result in any improvements to the taxi industry.
From this most recent round of consultations, the industry did make some noteworthy discoveries, however. For instance, it was learned that the MLS covertly hired an outside consultant to conduct an online questionnaire of several cab industry members.
“As usual, the City never gives us full disclosure on anything they do,” Manley beefs.
He alleges the City snuck the consultant (the Markham-based WSP Canada), “in the back door.” And what’s worse, he notes the Competition Bureau recently ordered WSP to pay $4 million for bid-rigging on municipal infrastructure contracts in Quebec (according to a March 13 article in the Canadian Press).
“It makes you wonder, why the cloak and dagger approach?” he adds. “Why weren’t these questions simply asked in the ongoing Phase meetings, thereby saving Toronto taxpayers several thousands of dollars?”
Reti termed this lack of transparency, “upsetting, to say the least”.
Equally disturbing were MLS staff figures that, with the open entry of PTC’s , Toronto now has a 1 to 36 per capita licensing number -- light years below the 1 per 1,000 ratio used by many cities.
“That makes it impossible for anyone to earn a full-time living,” Manley observes.
While many of the Phase meetings were sparsely attended, more than 100 industry members turned out for the Plate Owners meeting.
That included Reti (attending strictly as an individual and not representing ATOOL), who commended the Review Team members for their “professional manner.”
According to several sources, the MLS came in with its’ own agenda of issues, but when requested, did grant taxi industry members the chance to discuss their most pressing concerns.
“They didn’t address the problems the taxi industry is facing -- which the City is not worried about solving. It’s about us being removed,” states Taxi Action president Behrouz Khamseh.
He says Staff’s main preoccupation was with the possible reintroduction of mandatory driver training, public safety, and the gridlock and pollution concerns which have emerged with the implementation of Bylaw 546.
“I think these consultations were for PTC’s, not taxis,” he adds. “We questioned them on this. They’re playing games.
“I think the City is doing a wishy-washy job with the consultations.”
A member of ATOOL, Mohammad Reza Hosseinioun stresses, “If they’re talking about pollution, those 72,000-plus PTC cars are making a huge impact on the downtown. The pollution is there.”
And he warned, “If they bring in driver training, it’s going to be bad news for the taxi industry. They’re going to say, they’re better drivers.”
A glaring spotlight was brought to bear on the mothballing of the MLS driver training course in 2016, and the standards of PTC drivers, last March when 28-year-old Nicholas Cameron was killed in an Uber -- being driven by a man in just his second day on the road, and unsure of the way to the airport. And in December, Toronto Council directed MLS staff to look at the mandatory training of PTC and taxi drivers in its upcoming Report.
Manley alleges City politicians were “kowtowing” to the pleas of Cameron’s mother Cheryl Hawkes for a better standard of driver, because it is, “good p.r.”.
“But the education of PTC drivers is not going to stop this,” he comments. “We have too many vehicles on the road doing this service, and the more you get the less quality driver you will have.
“To me, the (talk of) education is a joke. It’s not going to amount to a hill of beans, unless they cut the number of PTC cars dramatically.”
Reti notes cab industry leaders had, “warned them from Day 1 not to abolish the driver training school.”
“A young, innocent man has to die before the Council sheep realize they screwed up,” he alleges, “and all for the 30 cents a run they get from (PTC’s).”
Hosseinioun is among those who feels the Review will amount to window dressing.
“The final report will come. But the City is being lobbied big time every day by Uber. Uber spends more than Amazon and Walmart combined on lobbying, according to a CBC report,” he offers.
“(Mayor John) Tory is, obviously, driving the whole thing. His office is giving direction. It’s clear.”
Former shift driver Peter McSherry observes that, “Cab drivers are to be taken advantage of by the City. That’s all they do, there’s nothing else really on their agenda.”
“(The drivers are) too busy trying to make $10 an hour to fight it. And they just don’t get it.”
Out on the street, a Co-Op driver told Taxi News, “It’s very bad.”
But when asked what the City could do to help, the eight-year man replied, “They don’t care, so what I say doesn’t matter.”
Having recently retired, ex-Hamilton owner/operator Hans Weinhold suggests there’s less reason than ever for someone to enter the cab business and try to make it a career.
“You want safe, experienced drivers. But, you’re pretty much shutting the door to these people,” he observes.
“(And) if the City is the regulator, they’re responsible for the fallout.”
That fallout includes thousands of sexual assault charges against PTC (primarily Uber) drivers the world over, along with “fake” PTC drivers looking to surreptitiously pick up young women outside the bars at closing time.
“You could see that coming with unmarked PTC vehicles,” Weinhold says. “They just laid waste to 100 years of parental advice, to never get in a car with a stranger.
“(But) I never believed the politicians, even before Uber, that they gave a shit about safety. What they care about is giving the impression they care.”
And while it’s possible, the taxi industry might win some law suits in jurisdictions around the world, he believes, “You won’t win this (fight against PTC’s). You can’t turn this back.”
“All of these people put their lives into this business thinking they could trust their regulator to be honest and fair, and the answer is, ‘No’,” he alleges. “When (ridesharing companies) came along, the politicians folded like an old lawn chair.”
He suggests the resulting, “race to the bottom” will compare to all-time low points, like the New York taxi industry in the 1930’s, or in London in 1654, “when they regulated the hackney trade.”