Thursday, June 20, 2024
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A “Manhattan Project” for Accessible Taxis urgently needed to address the entire failing system

Co-op Taxi now says it has more calls than drivers. Photo: Co-op Cabs

Before Uber arrived in Toronto, the City had a viable social contract with the individuals willing to invest $60,000 or more in an Accessible van customized to transport passengers with wheelchairs and walkers.

Now, in 2022, the last fleet of Accessible vans purchased before Toronto shredded its social contract with Taxi drivers is aging out, and many of the owners have no plan to re-invest.

Rita Smith

Unfortunately, as seen in the release of the Uber Files, the disruption of existing municipal taxi and transit systems was actually one of Uber’s goals. “Disruption” may be great for tech start-ups, but brutal for consumers who need Accessible transportation.

The phrase “Manhattan Project” has been used since World War II as shorthand to describe an urgent, exhaustive, effort staffed by experts working under intense pressure to solve a crucially important problem. Toronto needs to strike a “Manhattan Project” team to address the Accessible issue, before the vans, the drivers and the system collapse entirely.

Many of the best Accessible drivers do it because they truly enjoy helping people: “I was raised by my grandmother, she was so good to me. When I realized how much of this work involves serving senior citizens, it seemed very natural to me. I enjoy helping them,” one told me. Up close and personal, it is really not the kind of work you can do every day unless you love it.

In addition to enjoying the work, Accessible drivers also have to be willing to purchase and customize a new mini-van; in years past, this cost about $60,000. However, prices have gone up so it is now closer to $80,000 to put a package on the road.

Fuel costs have skyrocketed to double what they were only a short while ago.

In short: purchasing, customizing, and keeping an Accessible van on the road as a private-sector business is an expensive proposition, one which has always depended on the optimism and good will of the driver making the monthly payments. Fewer and fewer drivers are willing to do it any longer.

Before Toronto legalized ridesharing, the drivers who provided these Accessible vans counted on picking up non-Accessible jobs throughout the day or night to increase revenues and subsidize onerous costs. Airport runs, closing time at bars and restaurants, let-outs of a sporting event or theatre, business runs throughout the day were dovetailed with Accessible runs to generate enough money to keep the whole enterprise afloat.

Owner/operators must now pay about $80,000 to put a customized Accessible van on the road. Many no longer see it as a worthwhile investment. Photo: RWN

Enter Uber and John Tory’s motion at Council to provide a regulatory framework for a completely new and different form of transportation which would be allowed to scoop up the easiest, most lucrative work.

Poof! The airport runs, after-hours bar pick-ups, and business runs in the downtown core disappeared almost overnight.

Passengers loved the half-price fares; Rideshare drivers loved picking and choosing the most productive hours and runs. They are not compelled to provide any Accessible services at all.

It’s hard to imagine a more unequal system, which is bad enough for your average sedan-driving Taxi driver. For an Accessible driver, it’s simply financially unsupportable. A graph illustrating massively higher costs with plummeting revenues are what business analysts call “The Jaws of Death.” Maybe Amazon or Google could stay afloat in this scenario for a while; the average independent Accessible driver making monthly vehicle, insurance and fuel payments simply cannot.

The fig-leaf of an “Accessible Fund” which was pulled out of a hat in 2020 is a pathetic gesture, funded by the very drivers least able to afford it.

Already in Toronto and Ottawa, which also welcomed Uber, riders are experiencing difficulties booking rides and on July 15th the president of the Canadian Taxi Association Marc Andre Way issued an apology statement on the service gaps.

“We understand that some clients, and especially clients who require Accessible services, have recently endured stressful experiences including service delays. These unfortunate incidents should not occur, ever, and we are very sorry when they do. Please be assured, these regrettable incidents are the opposite of every single thing we strive for everyday in our businesses,” said Way, who has dedicated his entire career to the industry as CEO of Coventry Connections in Ottawa.

CTA president Marc Andre Way

“Please recall that in 2015, 2016, and 2017, politicians chose to support businesses that make a mockery of the law and of customer service. Rideshare companies were rewarded for their law-breaking by being allowed to skim enormous amounts of the easiest money from the transportation market while providing ZERO accessible services.

“At that time, politicians made hasty choices on how Ride-sharing would impact accessibility without seriously thinking of all members. These politicians created avoidable problem by not listening to those of us operating the services, or those with Accessible transportation needs. They were listening to Rideshare.”

Way ends the statement by encouraging media doing stories on the failures of the Accessible systems to speak with the politicians who allowed Uber to disrupt the entire Taxi industry.

Toronto Council is now preparing to vote to allow the existing vans to stay on the road until 2025; this is at best a band-aid solution in a situation that requires intelligent assessment, co-operative conversation with industry and good-will negotiation with the very group Denzil Minnan-Wong admits Council “crushed” in 2016.

In the end, it’s not the Accessible drivers who will suffer: it’s the riders. The living, breathing human beings who need an Accessible Taxi to get to a doctor’s appointment or a grand-child’s graduation. Did the politicians forget that? Or, did they simply never understand it in the first place?