PVAC takes tough stand on Uber X but Mayor Crombie has other ideas…
by Mike Beggs
In a pattern similar to that in Toronto, the battle between Mississauga taxi operators and Uber X is coming to full boil, with a decisive May 4 General Committee looming.
Just two days after the City’s Public Vehicle Advisory Committee (PVAC) made a bold statement in support of the licensed industry, Mayor Bonnie Crombie stepped in to slap its wrist.
On April 19, PVAC members had voted unanimously to disregard a staff report and recommend the “Capture” model, which would make the highly Uber X ride-booking service illegal under the Bylaw, while still allowing them to operate Uber Taxi, or Uber XL using licensed vehicles and licensed drivers. However, Crombie made it clear that she stands behind Staff’s recommendation of the “Equal Regulation” option (which would create a separate licensing class for Transportation Network Companies like Uber X, with less stringent regulations), and that this controversial issue will be decided at Council, not at Committee.
“The market is changing, and our taxi industry must adapt and modernize,” she told The Mississauga News.
Previously, at a special PVAC Open Education Session (on April 8), the Mayor praised the Mississauga taxi industry’s lengthy history of providing quality and reliable service, but suggested it “wasn’t realistic” to attempt to preserve the status quo, given the riding public’s enthusiastic support of the Uber app (with Uber X numbering 5,000 cars, and 100,000 customers in the 905 West suburb).
She noted the success of Uber, “has posed new challenges for municipalities the world over.” And, she echoed Staff’s position that it is essential to bring Uber X under the bylaw, in order to enforce against it.
Eleven days later, the PVAC’s unanimous decision met with a roar of approval from the licensed operators lining the Council Chambers. They claim their livelihoods are being jeopardized by their Uber X rivals -- who pay no licensing fees nor HST, have no commercial insurance, and fall below the municipal standard for driver training, vehicle inspections and safety equipment. And worst of all, they are being threatened by the damning prospect of Open Entry and Deregulation under the Staff option, which has proven an unmitigated disaster in Dublin, Montreal, and numerous other cities around the world.
The PVAC’s decision sent out the nation’s strongest message to date to Uber, coming just a few days after the Toronto Licensing and Standards Committee recommended gutting a Staff blueprint for regulating Uber X in a separate licensing class. The ultimate vote in Toronto is scheduled for May 6 Council.
“I’m ecstatic. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” long-time owner Peter Pellier said after the meeting.
President of the Peel Taxi Alliance, and PVAC brokers rep Baljit Pandori was among those pushing for an outright ban of Uber X, arguing that this marked the fifth meeting dedicated to this issue, and, “the driver’s have suffered (enough in the interim, with revenues down by an estimated 30 percent).”
“We’re very happy with what the Committee has done. Now, we can make a living,” he said afterward.
PVAC drivers rep Karam Punian reported that, “The drivers are so happy with this decision.”
But their jubilation was remarkably short-lived.
While not attending PVAC, the very next morning Uber Canada public policy manager Chris Schafer requested an audience before Mississauga’s General Committee to express his displeasure with Staff’s Equal Regulation option, patterned after the Calgary model (which includes strict requirements for vehicle inspections and driver background checks, and a $230 annual per driver licensing fee). In February, Uber deemed the Calgary model “unworkable”, pulling its cars from the streets, and Schafer deemed the Mississauga staff proposal “out of step”.
Then came the Mayor’s statement a day later, setting the stage for some ferocious lobbying from both sides before May 4.
Schafer says Uber X offers the riding public many advantages including lower fares, push button convenience, faster response times, cashless transactions, and the ability for customers to track and rate their driver. But around the world, Uber has been beset with a myriad of issues – from its lack of police background checks and obligatory commercial insurance for carrying paying customers, to court challenges from dissatisfied Uber X drivers claiming employee status, to allegations that all of its revenues earned in Canada get processed directly through an office in The Netherlands.
In his deputation before the PVAC, Pellier alleged that Mississauga’s Licensing and Enforcement staff have, “jumped through hoops in an effort to accommodate this lawbreaker, whose actions have torn asunder the livelihoods, pensions, and plate values of cabbies around the world, who refuses to play by well-established rules of conduct, who at every turn clamours for deregulation – a proverbial deathtrap for commercial transportation services.”
Veteran Toronto owner/operator Al Moore’s warnings were equally ominous.
“Uber truly is a predatory company, because it is bleeding both the taxi industry, and its own partners,” he deputated.
“Simply put, if Uber X is allowed to continue operating as it is in Mississauga, the taxi industry as we know it will not survive.”
Licensing Staff detailed the hurdles involved in attempting to crack down on Uber X. They say Uber’s sophisticated app technology has enabled them to thwart sting attempts by Enforcement officers. And they explained that the Equal Regulation Option would be the best route for corralling Uber X, giving the City a better chance at obtaining a court injunction against them, and gaining access to stiffer laws (higher fines, possible jail time). They cited the City of Toronto’s failed attempt to get a Superior Court injunction, because the Justice ruled that Uber was not defined under the City’s bylaw.
Furthermore, they warned about the time and money that would be involved in pursuing the Capture Option, because there would be a “process” in putting these measures in place.
But in calling for a unanimous vote in favour of the Capture Option, PVAC Chair Ron Starr emphasized that, “This is the fifth meeting (we’ve dedicated to this issue). I think, myself, today we have to make a decision.”
Vice Chair Carolyn Parrish agreed, stating, “I’ve had enough”.
At the Education Session she had said bluntly, “You have a bunch of illegal bandits coming in, and we’re trying to create a level playing field? Why the hell would I want to do that?”
She suggested several other enforcement alternatives, such as: hiring its own “super sleuth” to block Uber’s signals; hiring 40 or so security guards to patrol outside the bars at closing to pick out Uber drivers; or even for the authorities to just go straight into Uber’s head office in Mississauga and tell them they’re being shut down.
Punian insisted that Uber should receive “no special treatment” from the licensing authorities.
“If Uber wants to enter the market, no problem, if it’s in the Capture option (operating as Uber Taxi). That’s fair to the public, the plate owners, and the drivers,” he said.
He also expressed concern for the future of plate-holders who have seen the value of their “taxi driver’s pension” driven into the ground since Uber X’s arrival, after dedicating their careers to serving the City. However, the City’s Legal Counsel Robert Genoway advised that, “Plate values are not something that the City controls, and furthermore the Municipal Act does not authorize the City to regulate the value of plates, instead they have market value.”
Another PVAC member observed of Uber X, “Do they care about handicapped people, and older people who don’t have Smartphones? There’s that fundamental flaw.”
PVAC limousine brokers rep Joshua Zahavy recommended that the minimum fine for Uber X operating illegally be increased from $500 to $5,000, relating that Brampton has already implemented these tougher measures.
All-Star Taxi manager Mark Sexsmith once again requested an amendment to the Bylaw, changing the definition of “Broker” and “Driver” to ensure that it applies to Uber X. He suggested putting in these definitions would help, “to move along enforcement”.
Staff said such amendments would have to be made down the road, if the Capture Option was passed by Council.
However, that prospect is debatable now that Crombie has stepped back into the melee, not unlike Toronto Mayor John Tory (who has insisted from the outset that Uber’s virtual app technology is “here to stay”, and must be accommodated under his City’s Bylaw, under a “Level Playing Field”).
Pellier was among those to take issue with the Mayor’s intervention.
“She needs to pay attention to the fact, we have a motion that was arrived at after five meetings. It wasn’t as though PVAC short-shrifted this matter,” he comments.
He also questioned why Uber -- a company brazenly flouting the City’s laws – was allowed to appear at General Committee, on an item that was not supposed to be dealt with until May 4.
“They had the chance to come and speak at PVAC (like everybody else), and they chose not to do that,” he notes.
Of the pending May 4 decision, he offers, “I’m very cautious. This is not over yet.”
“The implications of this decision are far-reaching. And there’s a lot of money on the table for Uber.”
Sexsmith says he was confused by the Mayor’s remarks, because Schafer made it quite clear that Uber would not accept EITHER of the options on the table -- Capture, or Equal Regulation.
Looking ahead to May 4 he said, “I think we have a majority of Councillors who will go for the Capture option, which is the best solution for us. But the Mayor may be able to swing some people over to her side. (Who knows)?”