So here’s the skinny on ridesharing and my thought process leading up to Tuesday’s debate:
Early in our term, Uber approached the City and asked for us to amend our vehicle for hire bylaws to allow them to operate in London. Council considered the request and embarked on having the bylaw updated to allow for ridesharing businesses (aka Transportation Network Companies or TNCs).
In my opinion, the taxi bylaws have evolved into somewhat of a dog’s breakfast as staff and councils past have attempted to provide consumer protection while maintaining some sense of regulation of the taxi industry. In my opinion, it would be great if we could just start the whole process of regulating vehicles for hire from scratch but unfortunately, due to a lot of legal reasons, we can’t (I’m very opposed to the concept of transferrable licenses, for example).
So now we find ourselves in the middle of a turf war between the taxi industry, the limousine industry and the upstart TNCs such as Uber. Understandably, the taxi industry is worried about their market share, as they were when a previous term of council permitted the limousine industry to begin operating in London. Now the taxi and limousine industries are worried about their market share being further eroded by TNCs. If council is going to allow a new entrant into the market, it should do so in a manner that does not advantage one over the others – hence, the ‘level playing field’ argument that you’ve likely heard repeatedly.
The problem is that these three versions of vehicles for hire are dissimilar in many ways and so creating that level playing field becomes difficult. How should we structure a license fee schedule for each? How should the fares be set? How do we provide safety for the public?
Government really only has two tasks here – consumer protection and ensuring that regulation is a cost neutral exercise for the City (regulation is the part that is supposed to ensure consumer protection). Whatever the license fees are, they should only be reflective of the cost of administering the licensing. The City should not be using license fees to generate profit. As for consumer protection, the City should be ensuring that any vehicle used to transport others on a fee-for service basis is safe and reliable, that the drivers of those vehicles have been vetted for their driving and criminal records and that the passengers are provided with a clear, consistent and transparent fee structure. At the end of the day, if these are accomplished by different means, fair treatment has been given to all parties. It doesn’t mean that the exact same provisions need to be in place for each entrant.
So, is this debate really about cameras? Not at all. But that’s how many are framing it. To be candid, I really don’t care about cameras. It’s a red herring. What I do care about is ensuring that both the drivers and the passengers are safe. The level playing field in this is safety…not cameras. If any of the three can show that there are techniques in place to mitigate the risk to the driver and the passenger, I can accept that. I would think that the majority of altercations between a driver and a passenger occur as a result of a fare dispute. Other reasons could include robberies, sexual assaults, or inebriated passengers. The TNC apps require the fare to be prepaid and the driver does not handle any cash. The reality is cameras may help to prevent robberies of drivers who handle cash and that’s about it. I don’t see the cameras acting as a deterrent in the other cases. They may help identify an assailant, but I’m not sure how effective they are in supporting convictions. Even so, if you have to rely on camera evidence, you obviously haven’t prevented the bad thing from happening - you’re just trying to find the person responsible.
There will always be people who will find a way to circumvent a system that impedes them in their objectives. Someone wanting to rob a driver could disguise their appearance. Someone perpetrating a sexual assault could defeat the cameras or conduct their assault off camera. Someone could create a false identity and use a prepaid credit card on a ridesharing app so they couldn’t be identified. Those with a plan to do harm will plan for those obstacles.
So it sounds like I won’t support the camera requirement for TNCs. Indeed, come time to vote, I probably won’t. But this isn’t because I’m pro taxi or pro TNC. I think both have behaved poorly through this whole debate. I won’t support cameras in TNCs because I think the main driver/passenger safety risk comes as a result of handling cash and TNCs will be restricted to prepaid, app-based transactions. My job isn’t to protect one industry or advance another. It’s to ensure consumer protection (drivers as a consumer of a licensing structure and passengers as consumers of a service in our city).
But that’s not where it ends for me. Admittedly, I’m pretty ticked with Uber and I’ll single them out here. They asked us to update our regulations and, in good faith, we began that process. Well before we could complete the updates, Uber chose to break our laws, repeatedly. We asked them to stop until we could pass a new bylaw and they ignored us, repeatedly. All the while, they continue to lobby for a bylaw that reflects their desires / demands. I say ‘demands’ because they threaten certain actions if we don’t craft a bylaw exactly to their specifications. From my perspective, they could have had a seat at the table had they acted with good faith. Their actions and flagrant disrespect for this government and the rules of society mean that I will ignore any requests that they may have for elements to be included in the bylaw.
I had hoped that my colleagues would suspend any discussion of the bylaw while they continued to operate illegally, but we’ve carried on. When faced with increased costs to enforce the bylaw, I successfully moved that we increase the fine to the maximum allowed. Why should Londoners bear the cost of someone else breaking the law? That doesn’t mean I won’t support what makes sense to have in place in the bylaw, now it just means that I don’t care at all what Uber thinks about it.
(and I don’t believe Uber’s bluff that they will leave London if we don’t remove the camera requirement. If they didn’t stop operating while we fine them $1000 per event, why would they leave because we require them to make a $1000 investment in each car once?)
The sticking point in the bylaw for me is surge pricing and the draft on the floor right now does absolutely nothing to address this. I'm not against surge pricing, per se. In my opinion though, there needs to be a limit on the factor by which the fare can be increased. The argument of supply versus demand is a little ridiculous here. Obviously, prices of consumer goods can fluctuate based on supply and demand but I struggle to come up with many everyday examples where these change by the minute. If I go to the store and there’s only one of the item I want to buy left on the shelf and someone else is coming down the aisle to buy it too, it’s not going to double in price before I put it in my shopping cart. Hotel rooms prices vary based on demand but operators are required to post the maximum amount that can be charged for that room and they may not charge above that. So, while I don’t support the requirement for TNCs to have cameras in the vehicles, without a cap on surge pricing, I can’t support the bylaw.
I wish we’d heard from Lyft or other TNCs not yet operating in London during this debate. I think they would have had a lot to add to the conversation and, perhaps, could have done so in a manner that wasn’t hostile to the process. I see a lot of merit in the business model of TNCs and a lot of value in their product. I understand why so many people like to use TNCs and I have no intent to obstruct that.
Trying to balance the interests of many parties can be quite difficult and trying to achieve consensus on something like this may well be impossible. They say a horse designed by a committee is a camel. At the end of the day, that may just be what we have.
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It must be pointed out that Uber did not approach the city to change the existing bylaws but instead commenced conducting business illegally with a press release letting the city know they would be beginning operations at their pleasure. I wanted to clear that misconception up.
In your opinion, you believe that the Taxi and Limo bylaws are a “dogs breakfast” as you put it and have evolved. Well, let me say this, if you are familiar with the existing bylaws, they are regulations that have been put in place over many years with the public’s, the community and the industry’s input to better serve the city and it’s citizens. The vast majority of the regulations deal with public safety. In your former work life as a paramedic you understand the focus of public safety and why it is important. In defense of past councils, and I chaired the Taxi and Limo Task Force at one time, we understood the importance of the industry and dealt with the issues that all councils struggle with but would be better off if they consulted the industry. We have never been approached by some members of this council and we have been discussing it for approximately the past 18 months.
In your blog, you mentioned that you are opposed to transferable licences, hopefully you are aware that that issue was dealt with and due to legal issues, it was dealt with as best as it could be and that was by having the system that is now in place. New licences are non-transferable. That hopefully makes you feel better.
Now, we as an industry take great exception to your assumption that we are involved in a “turf war”, your words. On that point you are dead wrong. We as an industry have made it very clear that we are open to a fair and level playing field which fosters competition as long as the rules are the same. If you have noticed, there are now 5 taxi companies in the City of London when just about 7-8 years ago their were 2. It was all done under the rules and regulation in place now. We did not try to change them. We understood them and used them as the template to follow for all the companies now operating. What has been extremely troubling is the fact that the illegal operator is now pressuring you and other councilors by stating that their approximately 960 drivers will lose their jobs if you were to mandate cameras and hoping you would feel sorry for those who have inserted themselves into an industry illegally and followed a business model that is outlawed in our city. I just wonder, but did any of them or their company have any thoughts towards those who were already invested in the industry with tens of thousands of dollars and their jobs on the line? The Uber Drivers Association is now placing that argument forward. They must be kidding.
I want to begin this next part of my response with the term, with all due respect. Some of what you have written in your blog and questions that you are asking have been answered very clearly by city staff. The issue of fees was covered very well at committee by Mr. Katolyk and his reasoning was sound. He is one of the few bylaw enforcement officials who has had to stand before a judge and defend his fee structure. He was resoundingly believed by the judge and was able to put those fees into the last bylaw which was challenged in court. Yet at committee, the 18 months of work he put into the issue was totally rebuked by committee as Clr. Cassidy read directly from what Mr. Schafer from Uber had provided her as to what they wanted. Sorry, I should have used the term dictated. Mr. Katolyk warned committee and council that he doesn’t believe that the fee structure put in place, at Uber’s request, will cover costs of policing the new player in the market. If this occurs, I hope council will be able to explain to their constituents why their property taxes will be raised in order to cover the impending shortfall. The industry has always covered their own costs. Perhaps you could discuss this with Mr. Katolyk.
Let’s discuss fares for a bit. We have always been told what fares to charge by the city. During these discussions, we fought hard to allow for the taxi industry to have the option to discount. Seniors, students and other groups could benefit from this. We have implemented this a few months back since the option was allowed. In addressing the fallacy of Uber being cheaper, well that is the case since they are not tied to paying any regulatory requirements like car inspections, driver licencing, criminal background checks, winter tires, taking debit cards etc. I wonder if you are aware that Uber drivers are not required to carry the disabled, be in service 24hrs a day, take cash or debit. The taxi industry is mandated to do these things. We are not against doing them but you must understand there is a cost to providing these different requirements. If we weren’t required to do these things, don’t you think we could offer a cheaper service also? We are happy to keep providing these services but just wanted to point out the large differences.
Now let’s get to the point that you say the issue is not “… really about cameras”. I will point out our belief on this and hopefully I can articulate it in a manner that your bylaw enforcement manager was able to convey to council after 18 months of studying the issue. Uber has explained with what I believe are “alternative facts”. They continue to regale the public, you included, that their App is the safest thing around. They tell you that they are aware of everyone who orders a car and know who they are. I would hope that you look at the video of the committee meeting where they debated this issue. Mr. Katolyk made it abundantly clear, not just at committee but also at council that city bylaw enforcement were able to take numerous rides with fake names, fake email addresses, devoid of pictures and with credit cards that did not belong to the individual getting into the vehicle. Can you please explain to me how this squares with what Uber has been saying? It is a false statement. I can tell you unequivocally that cameras help lower the incidents of violent crimes in cars. When cameras were first discussed, the taxi and limo industry were in opposition to them being placed in vehicles. Since they have been installed, drivers will tell you that every weekend they would likely have approximately 4-5 incidents, per company, that were violent. This is no longer the case. They may have 1 per weekend since the installation of the cameras. Now you are likely thinking that cabs and limos likely had higher incidents because they carry cash, well most incidents turned violent because those getting in the car were possibly drunk or on some other mind altering chemical substance. People now know that cars are equipped with cameras since they warn them as they get in that cameras are on and all their actions are being recorded. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful but your assumption that no other crimes can occur in these vehicles other than a robbery is somewhat pollyanna. You may want to read the London Free Press article dated December 19th, 2016 of a woman who was sexually assaulted and confined to an Uber dispatched vehicle. I am sure you don’t ever want to see that happen to anyone in the city. Could cameras have prevented that incident? Quite possibly yes.
Clr. Turner, in your day to day public service sector job with the health unit you talk about prevention. I am sure it is a major focus of how to prevent people from getting hurt physically, mentally and emotionally. I can’t give you solid numbers as to how many violent incidents of assaults, robberies, sexual assaults and other violent incidents have been stopped before they have begun, but common sense tells me that cameras have played a major role in eliminating a number of them. I don’t want to be the one telling the young lady or vulnerable child that maybe things would have been different if cameras were installed. I would like to be the one who says… " yes, we are concerned for your safety and want to make sure you feel safe".
Clr. Turner, do the right thing and uphold the bylaw passed at the last council meeting. Residents of London will thank you for it. I invite you once again to give me a call and discuss this further. I don’t understand your reluctance to do so. My number is 519-636-3407 and I will be available to you at your convenience. Hopefully you call prior to the meeting.
London Taxi Association