Monday, July 15, 2024
NewsRide Hailing newsTaxi industry news

How Toronto’s Accessible taxi service was blown up by Uber

Before Toronto legalized ride-sharing, the drivers who provided accessible vans counted on picking up non-accessible fares to subsidize onerous costs

June 13, 2024 update: This column ran in the Toronto Star on July 20, 2022. Taxi News is republishing it in the context of the current Vehicle for Hire consultation as a backgrounder for those interested in how the city’s Accessible Taxi on-demand program was allowed to fail, and whether there is a way to resurrect it.


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.

RWN/Taxi News publisher 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 startups, but brutal for consumers who need accessible transportation.

In Toronto, 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. 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 minivan; in years past, this cost about $60,000. With price increases, 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.

Before Toronto legalized ride-sharing, the drivers who provided these accessible vans counted on picking up nonaccessible 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, and business runs throughout the day dovetailed with accessible runs to generate enough money to keep the whole enterprise afloat.

Enter Uber and Toronto Mayor John Tory’s motion at city 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, bar pickups and business runs in the downtown core disappeared almost overnight.

Passengers loved the half-price fares; ride-share 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 is what business analysts call “The Jaws of Death.” Maybe Amazon or Google could stay afloat in this scenario for a while, but 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 taxi drivers least able to afford it.

Now, in 2022, the last accessible vans purchased before Toronto shredded its social contract with taxi drivers are aging out, and many owners have no plan to reinvest. Already, riders are experiencing difficulties booking rides, and on July 15, Canadian Taxi Association president Marc Andre Way issued an apology statement on the service gaps.

Toronto city council is currently considering a motion 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 who depend on them. The living, breathing human beings who need an accessible taxi to get to a doctor’s appointment or a grandchild’s graduation.

Toronto needs a creative, comprehensive effort to redesign the program, before the vans, the drivers and the system collapses.


Rita Smith is the publisher of Taxi News, and has worked in the taxi industry as well as all levels of government since 1985.