Industry holds out little hope for Cook review of City’s ‘crazy’ bylaw
by Mike Beggs
The status of Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards executive director Tracey Cook’s overdue one-year Review of the Vehicle-For-Hire Bylaw is just one more worry and aggravation for the beleaguered taxi industry.
“I guess they’re trying to stall it as much as they can,” alleges Peter’s Taxi owner Peter Mandronis. “I believe you won’t see it until January -- by the time the politicians come back from holidays, and they’re going to have important things on their agenda.
“They’re just buying time, that’s all. That’s my gut feeling. I could be wrong.”
He believes when Cook’s report finally does surface, “It’s going to be watered down. (They’re going to say), ‘We have every Uber driver screened, and every insurance policy filed,” he adds sarcastically. “They’ll say, ‘Oh we can do it electronically.’”
He dismisses the new bylaw as, “crazy”, falling well short of Mayor John Tory’s promise of creating a level playing field between licensed taxis and Uber X cars (licensed in a separate category for Private Transportation Companies).
“In simple layman’s terms, they just want to destroy the taxi industry. And then, when Uber has a monopoly, then they will start gouging the public,” he predicts.
“It’s not fair play. Right now, the politicians don’t even want to listen.”
After spending time deputating at recent meetings in Vaughan, Markham, Richmond Hill, Oshawa, and Niagara Falls, Mandronis says it’s always the same scenario.
“They just look at you and they don’t have any answers. No comments,” he continues. “That’s what they do.”
Long-time owner/operator Joel Barr agrees, “No matter what we say, they don’t care. They’ve made up their minds before the meetings.”
“(And), they put us through the wringer (for decades) -- getting our cars checked, and tickets for No Hub Caps. Now, they don’t care about the Uber cars. They’re just burying their heads in the sand, until something happens,” he alleges. “They sold the industry out four years ago. They could have just (shut Uber down when they were operating unlicensed). No, they let them run amok.”
And now that the City has reneged on its promise of a, “taxi driver’s pension”, he says owner/operators will, “just have to learn to adjust.”
“I’m surviving,” he relates. “But I’m definitely adjusting my attitude towards retiring, my daily income, and the way I spend my money. I work a little longer hours.”
Of the report’s status, owner Andy Reti scoffs, “What’s the rush?”, with the City reportedly raking in $300,000 to $400,000 a month from Uber (which pays a 30 cent fee on every Uber X run).
“I’m just waiting for somebody to stand up on their hind legs and say to the City, ‘Enough already’. Who would do it? That’s the $63,000 question.”
But could there be some positive changes when the report finally arrives?
“Give your head a shake. Give me one change we can expect. None that I know of,” he adds.
“Look, the cab industry has always been the whipping boy for politicians. Denzil Minnan-Wong, he introduced the Ambassador program, and the (shortlived) printing meters.”
iTaxiworkers Association executive Mohammed “Reza” Hosseinioun concurs, “Don’t expect anything from Tracey. If Tracey really cared about this business, she would have had a meeting with the taxi industry and pointed out what’s happening,” he alleges.
“The City just wants the money. They were supposed to take care of the TTL (Toronto Taxi License) and Accessible issues, and all of these things in the Review. Again, they won’t come up with their report.”
More recently, he claims the industry got short-shrift in the King Street Pilot Project. While Council granted taxis an off-hours exemption, he says the industry is “going to suffer big time” because of this program.
“Hundreds and hundreds of taxi drivers make a living out of that, and now it becomes a disaster,” he says. “Basically, the idea is totally stupid, they’re increasing the number of taxi stands by double, but they’re only letting taxi drivers go one major block (before having to turn off King). Come on. Everybody knows Richmond, and Adelaide will be a zoo.”
He suggests these rules will end up doubling the cost of a cab ride.
“So to force the people to use the TTC, they are, literally, killing the taxi industry,” he adds.
Taxi Action president Behrouz Khamseh ran into Cook at city hall recently, and says that she claimed the MLS has been busy with the King Street Pilot Project, and other issues.
“She says it’s coming upÉ She has enough excuses,” he alleges.
“I’m not sure why they’re delaying it. No one knows. Obviously, we’re not happy with the things they have introduced around here.”
His biggest issue is the open entry granted Uber, resulting in another 40,000 cars combing Toronto streets.
“It’s pretty bad,” he says. “According to their data, Uber X carries 62,000 fares a day. That’s 62,000 fares a day (taken away) from the taxi industry,” he alleges.
“The City achieved what they wanted to achieve (backdoor deregulation of the taxi industry), and now they’re basically laughing at us.”
Former long-time cabby Peter McSherry suggests the industry has always been exploited by the powers that be.
“(Uber), they’re cooperating with the City to do in the cab drivers,” he alleges. “Uber is more taxi availability, simple as that. It cuts into the taxi revenues.”
After abiding by some of the heaviest taxi regulation in the world for more than 50 years, Mandronis now fears, “we’re all going to go on welfare.”
“Everybody bought a small business to support themselves and their children. And all of a sudden, they roll out the carpet for somebody (else, who circumvented the rules for three years),” he fumes.
Safety levels are another big industry concern, after the City heeded Uber’s recommendations for less stringent standards for driver training and screening, and vehicle inspections in the new bylaw. While Uber’s app technology gives the customer some security (with the ability to track his/her driver), cab industry leaders claim their optional security cameras, and emergency flashing lights are a significant step backwards.
“Nothing, nothing (no safety). Just pay me,” Mandronis says, of the City’s attitude.
“The only thing is, something terrible is going to happen and the family will sue the municipality.”
Khamseh maintains the City relaxed the rules too quickly, sacrificing the professionalism of drivers. He cites complaints about some Uber X drivers having no knowledge of Toronto’s major streets and landmarks.
“I don’t know what we can do. How can we clean it up now?” he asks.
“GPS is only for location. Handling people in the cars, there are so many issues.”
But he acknowledges short fare refusals, and longer waiting times have turned some people off of taxis.
“The public did not appreciate that. This is a fact,” he adds.
“We have to provide a better service for the price, if we want to continue to survive.”
Hosseinioun agrees the refusal of fares is becoming “a major issue”. But he says iTaxi hopes to improve customer service with the launch of, “one app for the entire taxi industry”, by the end of the year.
As it stands now, he says, “It’s a waste of time. Four hours, I drove around (today) and not even one pickup. I said, ‘Forget it.’”
On the post outside 900 Bay Street, another cab driver agrees, “It’s hell.”
“They don’t care about us,” he alleges. “(Ex-Toronto Mayor) David Miller was riding in my car, and he wants to know if John Tory’s family is working for Uber and being paid as employees? How come nobody is asking that question?”
“It’s ridiculous. Nobody is going to do anything. They’ve gone and destroyed the cab industry. The City should enforce their own laws.”
Similarly, in Mississauga, All-Star Taxi manager Mark Sexsmith relates, “The taxi business is dead. We need 38 new plates like a hole in the head.”
But that’s what Mississauga Council approved for the ongoing Pilot Project for Uber X, which kicked off on July 1.
He says the industry is now in waiting mode for the September meeting of the City’s Public Vehicle Advisory Committee, where rewrites to the new bylaw will begin.
One sector of the business he feels the taxi industry can retain and build on is institutional, governmental, and hospital runs.
“(Uber), they won’t touch that,” he says. “They can’t that, because they haven’t got the qualifications for it.”
“We have a company driver training plan, vehicle standards, and all our drivers have to have Red Cross, and CPR training. Their drivers aren’t trained, their cars aren’t inspected, you don’t know what you’re getting. You just cannot expose yourself to liability without being covered. Every driver in our company has $2 million up front, and the brokerage covering a $5 million backstop (in case something goes over $2 million).”
And if and when autonomous vehicles take over the roads, Sexsmith says people in wheelchairs, shoppers with groceries, and Baby Boomers with luggage going to the airport are still going to need help from a driver.
But in the interim it’s Uber X’s cheap rates and consumer friendly app have made it a $70-million phenomenon the world over Ð while facing a steady stream of criticism, fines and reprimands, law suits, and massive upheaval at its Sillicon Valley head office (of late).
cellphones. They say they’re going to get three drinks and take an Uber, and save $10. They think it’s cool. They can buy an extra drink,” Hosseinioun comments. “Then when they get outside the bar at 2 a.m., they’re going around, ‘Are you my Uber?’ They’re asking for trouble. I can go downtown with my car and say I’m an Uber driver.”
A twenty-something named Dion tells Taxi News, “I take Uber from time to time. Friendly service, cheaper price.”
He’s not concerned about safety.
“No, not really. To be honest, from my experiences with cabs, I don’t like them. After a concert, they refuse short runs.
“I think as long as they keep a low price (Uber will continue to dominate). And it’s quite convenient.”
But at Bloor and St. Mary’s, a woman named Robin says adamantly, “I take taxis, I don’t support Uber.”
“I don’t care. I’d rather pay for my safety. These (taxi) guys pay tons of money for their cars -- for vehicle inspections, licensing fees, and insurance,” she says. “With Uber, you don’t know if the driver has been properly screened, trained and insured. I’d rather pay somebody I know is (properly) regulated.”
“Sexual assaults, that’s a big thing,” she adds, “because (with Uber) you don’t know who the driver is.”
Another rider shared similar concerns after recently experiencing his first Uber X ride.
“I had no idea who the driver was,” he says. “He could be a potential felon.”
“I couldn’t identify the driver. He was stopped out on the street shouting out for (our party). There’s no light on the top. The sticker for Uber is only on one side,” he adds. “And when I’m in the back seat, I like to see a photo of the driver with their name.”