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Opinion/Column

Back to the future as Toronto Council chooses mean streets over consumer protection

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In 2019, after the death of Nicholas Cameron in an Uber with an untrained driver, Toronto Council directed staff to reinstate a driver testing and training program. While staff blame COVID for the fact that no training program has yet been launched, 40,000 new professional drivers were licensed without testing during this period.

This is worth re-stating: Toronto Council directed staff to design and implement a training program 27 months ago. No action has been taken: no program designed, no Request for Proposals issued to training suppliers, no outreach to Centennial College, which already offers Taxi driver training.

For the October 1st City Council meeting, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam filed a Motion calling upon Council to stop issuing new vehicle-for-hire licenses until it gets its training program running. The Motion failed, likely in large part to a massive lobbying effort by Uber.

Meanwhile, ironically, Taxi News is running an excerpted series of the book “Mean Streets” by author and Taxi Driver Peter McSherry, who drove Taxi in the city from 1972 to 2018, and who sadly passed away in August.

Reading these excerpts from “Mean Streets, the first and over-riding impression you take away is that Toronto’s Taxi industry has seen a VAST improvement over the decades. This slow-but-steady upward trajectory of consumer protection measures and safety standards came to a screeching halt in 2016 when Toronto revised its Taxi by-law (545) to permit rideshare companies to operate (546).

This slow-but-steady upward trajectory of consumer protection measures and safety standards came to a screeching halt in 2016

In fact, McSherry’s 2002 book helpfully documented for posterity many of the very worst aspects of Toronto’s 20th-century Taxi industry; it should be required reading for every voting member of Toronto Council. Reading his raucous words and vivid descriptions leaves the indelible impression that this was a chaotic, poorly managed growth period in the history of the City and its Taxi industry. We are glad we left it behind, and it is not one to which anyone ever wanted to return. And yet, inexplicably, we did, with by-law 546.

Toronto’s online consultation on its vehicle-for-hire program closes October 8th click here for information on how to submit your ideas and opinions.

From toronto.ca:

The City is providing an update report to the General Government and Licensing Committee in November that will speak to work completed since the last Vehicle-for-Hire Bylaw Review and outstanding Council directives. Topics to be covered in the report can be found below.

If you would like to comment on any of the topics, please email vehicleforhirereview@toronto.ca. The deadline for submissions is Friday, October 8 at 11:59 p.m.

Topics to be included in the update report

Licensing:

  • A third-party assessment of vehicle-for-hire licensing fees in comparison to other business licensing categories, taking into consideration cost-recovery and the harmonization of fee categories.

Congestion and Emissions:

  • An update to the 2019 Transportation Impact Study that will present findings on the transportation impacts of vehicles-for-hire.
  • An outline of next steps to reduce emissions in the vehicle-for-hire industry.

Accessibility Fund Program:

Driver Training Program:

Safety Measures:

  • In response to Council directives, an update on the feasibility of implementing the following measures:
    • Increased mandatory inspections
    • New requirements for in-car cameras and emergency lighting systems
    • Restrictions on the maximum numbers of hours that a driver can work in 24 hours
    • New measures to reduce dooring incidents
    • New software to restrict pick up and drop off locations in ‘no stopping’ areas

Note, safety measures were also explored as part of the 2019 Vehicle-for-Hire Bylaw Review.

I began writing for Taxi News in 1986, and served as editor of the paper for seven years from about 1987-1994. I had a front-row seat to watch and report during the years in which the city was committed to improving its Taxi industry as one of the important elements of its tourism sector.

The fight over limiting the age of the cars to five years, for example, was epic; the debate over forcing cabs to upgrade to sealed, computerized meters seemed to drag on for years.

Driver training was time-consuming and in-car cameras are expensive; but the industry eventually got onside with all of these improvements and more. Taxi News covered it all.

When Toronto announced a full review of its Taxi industry in 2012, certainly there were issues on which to work, but these were relatively minor tweaks in the decades-long evolution of the trade. Already with branded paint jobs and roof lights, city-inspected cars, 17 days of driver training, security cameras, police background checks, sealed meters, and commercial insurance, passenger safety and consumer protection had clearly won as the City’s priorities. Ensuring drivers could earn a fair living was a distant second, but at least it was on the list.

By-law 546, which provided one set of standards for ride share vehicles and another for Taxis, essentially transported the City’s vehicle-for-hire situation right back to the “Means Streets” of 1972.

In an exceedingly unfortunate turn of events, in 2016 Toronto created a brand new vehicle-for-hire by-law in order to allow rideshare corporations like Uber and Lyft operate.

It all seemed very exciting for consumers at the time: the cost of taking an Uber was heavily subsidized by an almost endless torrent of money supplied by venture capitalists keen to monopolize public transportation. Riders who balked at paying $12 for a Taxi were delighted to pay $5 or $7 for an Uber, cannibalizing Toronto’s own transit system.

Toronto quickly licensed more than 100,000 ride share vehicles, clogging the streets, spewing exhaust, and decimating the income of all professional drivers while also costing the TTC riders and revenues.  Ironically, on September 28th Toronto Uber drivers protested the company’s head office, calling for an end to open entry of drivers in the rideshare market.

By-law 546 provided one set of standards for ride share vehicles and another for Taxis. Expecting them to compete with each other essentially transported the City’s vehicle-for-hire situation right back to the “Mean Streets” of 1972.

Untrained drivers; unbranded cars; mysterious pricing and surge prices at busy times: Toronto has seen all of this before. It worked hard for half of a century to get rid of all this and improve consumer protection.

Now, the venture capitalists who were so keen to pay for half of every Uber ride are not so keen anymore. Passengers asked to pay the actual cost of an unsubsidized hired vehicle are shocked to see the prices; rideshare drivers have realized that open entry may allow quick work, but not a living wage.

Staff are due to report on by-law 546 including the progress in driver training at the November 30 Licensing committee meeting. Toronto has a chance to put consumer protection first again.

Let’s not go back to the mean streets.