Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Uber in Toronto? It's inevitable

I have also avoided commenting on the Uber ride-sharing service until now, but as Toronto City Council moves to draft new regulations which might allow Uber to operate legally in the city, the issue is becoming more and more urgent and unavoidable.
It's difficult for me to get too excited about Uber. I can't remember the last time I used a taxi in my own city - I use public transit, or, when that is impractical, I use our car. Rarely am I in so much of a rush, and without access to a car, that I need to employ the services of a taxi. But I do know people that use taxis, and some that swear by Uber.
Currently, Uber is operating illegally in Toronto, in contravention of city by-laws. This is partly what irks me about the service: there is a law that they are perfectly aware of, but they are happy to skirt around, and even to unequivocally break, that law for their own commercial gain. They argue that the taxi by-laws just do not apply to them, that they are a ride-sharing service not a taxi service, but they know perfectly well that this is completely spurious and disingenuous.
Uber has been unsuccessful in some places they have tried this (e.g. Calgary), and these cities have been able to regulate Uber into submission without requiring an outright ban. In other places (e.g. Edmonton and, very soon, Ottawa), they have succeeded in getting the city to change their regulations to accommodate the service. In yet others (e.g. Halifax, Winnipeg), where Uber deems that the costs may outweigh the potential benefit, or that the expected political push-back is perceived as being too strong, they have chosen not to force the issue at all. It is a very canny company.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Uber's intention is to make itself all but indispensable to the people of the city, so that the populace will then rise up against their masters and insist that the service be legally allowed. And they have been very successful at doing just that.
I can see that Uber is indeed the way of the future, and its advantages, in terms of technology, convenience and efficiency, are quite apparent. That said, I also empathize with the heavily-regulated regular taxi drivers of Toronto (usually middle-aged, over-qualified immigrants, for whom nothing else is available), who are stuck with an antiquated and inequitable system of overpriced taxi licences, and who see their already precarious livelihoods trickling away towards the upstart Uber. Some taxi-drivers have sunk their life savings into taxi licences that would lose a large proportion of their value if Uber were to be allowed as competition.
The solution, though, should not be to ban Uber - thereby condoning and endorsing the existing ridiculous taxi system - but to reform that system, to do away with absentee plate holders charging an arm and a leg on the "free" market, in order to give drivers the privilege of working long, depressing and often potentially dangerous shifts driving rented taxis, all so that they can earn a pittance. Indeed, many taxi drivers now moonlight with Uber to supplement their paltry earnings.
As I see it, Uber (or something very like it) is inevitable. How we get there - with some measure of grace, or with strife and acrimony - is the issue now.

After a predictably fractious and long day of debating, Uber is now technically legal in Toronto as of 3 May 2016. Mayor John Tory's observation that "there is no ideal answer that is going to satisfy everybody" was something of an understatement, and it looks like neither the taxi industry nor Uber itself is entirely happy with the outcome. Over 100 amendments were added to the initial motion, and the 27-15 final vote probably does not do justice to the level of uncertainty and tension within the Council.
The new rules are an attempt at compromise between two highly antagonistic camps. Uber is now allowed to legally operate under a new class of licence (a "private transportation company" licence), albeit with a higher minimum fare than it wanted, and with other regulatory rules, such as on mandatory insurance, etc. Taxis, on the other hand, will now be allowed to use Uber-style "surge" peak-hour pricing, or discounts at other times. However, some of the attempts to level the playing-field seem to involve a dumbing down of both taxi and Uber requirements - for example, Uber drivers will not have to take training programs in order to get a licence, and taxi and limousine drivers will no longer have to take CPR and first-aid training - which is not necessarily a good thing.
So, no-one is fully satisfied by the outcome, but would they ever be? Uber argues that the rules are still too restrictive, and will not allow the "ride-sharing" industry to grow (which seems unlikely to me). Taxi divers, meanwhile, say that the very existence of Uber will still cut deeply into their bottom line (which does seem likely).
But a full of day of negotiating and arguing has still done nothing to address one of the main problems with the taxi industry, the unregulated sale and rental market in taxi licences.

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