As most students know full-well, getting a cab today is not cheap. It isn’t so bad if you have three or four buddies who are willing to split the meter with you but if you’re hailing a cab for yourself it really is your last resort if you have no other way of getting to where you need to go.
I found this out for myself when I took a cab to Brock from home for the first time last week. I was astonished when we pulled up in front of the tower and the meter read $15.00. “What? Really?” I said to the driver. “That was barely a five minute ride!” I protested. “No wonder you guys are getting killed by Uber.”
I didn’t raise my voice or speak harshly with the driver. She understood my frustrations and was sympathetic overall. I simply was unprepared for the cost of the trip.
She explained in detail why the fare was so expensive and entirely out of her control. She also drew my sympathies. Cabbies are a small but very close-knit group. They look after one another, they play by the rules and they generally love the work they do.
As we parted ways and I left for class, I spent a good part of the day wondering if people like her, the old school cabbie, will still have a job in the years to come. When the mobile app, the cellphone and companies like Uber are her main competitors now, does the traditional taxis model really have any hope of surviving the future?
Uber is available in more than 300 cities around the world and expanding fast. Its app technology allows anybody with a mobile phone to hail a cab with the click of a button, putting them in touch with drivers who use their own car and who are often unlicensed. It’s this skirting of municipal bylaws, regulations, license fees and insurance costs that allows Uber to charge a much lower fare than your average taxi company.
Uber was founded in 2009 in San Francisco by two tech geniuses, Travis Kalanick and Garret Camp. It became popular overnight but it was only in 2012 that the company introduced the mobile app onto the global market.
In just a few short years it has made its founders billionaires but as the app has spread so have the challenges. Uber has been sued numerous times in various jurisdictions around the world. Dozens of cities, such as Vancouver and Edmonton, have tried to force the company to comply with municipal regulations, but Uber refuses to give in.
More recently, on September 30, the Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, and city council, voted 32-12 in favour to regulate Uber. Toronto taxis drivers, and the Toronto Taxis Alliance which represents them, have been lobbying the city for months to come down hard on Uber.
“We are not asking for any new laws or regulations. We are simply asking officials to enforce the laws which already exist,” a spokesperson for the Toronto Taxi Alliance said.
“City by-law officers could more aggressively enforce the by-laws; Toronto police are not enforcing the Highway Traffic Act. Two weeks ago, Guelph police charged five UberX drivers with violating Section 39.1 of the Highway Traffic Act in one day.”
During the vote, city council demanded that Uber suspend its service but the company balked. Ian Black, the general manager of Uber Canada, said the California-based company would not comply.
“I think Uber has a responsibility to the 400,000 riders who rely on us for transportation as well as the 16,000 drivers who rely on us for their income, so Uber intends to continue operating in the city of Toronto,” Black said.
While Tory acknowledged that any attempts to introduce a ban on the service would not work, the city should try to level the playing field.
“A legal regime that we have in place should take into account the reality of who’s participating and those who are participating should operate within the law,” Tory said.
But this is much easier said than done. Toronto is not the only city struggling to figure out what to do with Uber. Having the police issue a small fine to discourage the drivers they do find is but a slap on the wrist. Protecting taxi monopolies and forcing Uber to comply with city bylaws also ignores the real issue: an entirely new market has been created.
Toronto city council proposed to reduce the standard taxis fare by $1 as an incentive but even at that, regulated and licensed taxi simply can’t compete with the fares that Uber is charging. When you don’t have to incur the same insurance costs, maintenance requirements, or license fees, it gives you ample room to pass some of those savings off to your customers.
The frustration is starting to show. On October 1, Tory accused Uber of giving the city the “one-finger salute”. The mayor was adamant that the city will not accept a taxi service operating “outside the law” and that “Uber can and must now, in particular, demonstrate that it can earn Toronto’s trust.”
If Uber “turns around after being part of that (regulation consultation) process and say, ‘No, we’re not going to comply with any of these regulations,’ we are then dealing with people who are dealing in absolute bad faith,” Tory said.
To date, only 100 Uber taxi drivers have been charged with breaching city bylaws but even as the mayor acknowledged that the city simply doesn’t have the resources to police every Uber driver. The mayor said that continued opposition from Uber will cost them his support.
“While it still won’t be easy to close them down, I can tell right now they will have lost me as a supporter at that time,” Tory said.
“I don’t believe it is then an act of good corporate citizenship; in fact, I think it’s exactly the opposite, for them to turn around and… give us the one-finger salute again.”
While I sympathize with the average taxis driver who plays by the rules and just wants a fair industry for everyone, they are fighting a losing battle.
The governments around the world trying to regulate the service and force the company and its drivers to comply with regulations will probably win in the end but the mobile app technology has changed the nature of the game.
I think the mayor is right to try and force Uber to comply with city bylaws. If it did nothing it would be an incredible injustice to taxi drivers.
The $1 reduction in fares is gesture politics and for people who use taxis, whether on a regular or irregular basis, who are used to paying high rates, suddenly find their taxis ride is much cheaper, and available at the click of a button, it isn’t difficult to figure out which option people are likely to prefer.
As one taxi driver told me recently, “Toronto cabbies are getting killed by Uber and it’s not because it’s a better service but they just simply can’t compete with the price, it’s impossible to match,” she said.
Mobile technology has entered the business and however much governments want to enforce existing bylaws, they are fighting a losing battle.
It is cheaper, more convenient and as a digital service it appeals to countless party goers and college and university students with limited funds. Sorry Mr. Tory, whether we like it or not, the ‘digital’ taxi is here to stay.