The recent protests in Toronto against ride sharing programs like Uber highlight the ambiguity behind cab regulation and ride sharing.
Imagine a scenario where a federal MP representing a constituency far removed from Toronto would feel the need to issue a press release pleading with the Mayor of Toronto to act swiftly to harmonize municipal regulation. Also imagine a municipal regulatory issue the federal Competition Bureau felt compelled to address. Or one where the former leader of the provincial opposition introduces legislation aimed at sidestepping municipal regulators on a purely local matter.
For observers of local government this all seems strange, but these are the bizarre new places the Uber/cab dispute has taken us.
On the one side of this debate is the taxi industry, which represents hundreds of drivers who have paid often-exorbitant fees to drive a car for hire. As absurd as these fees and the accompanying regulations are to many, these individuals have played by the rules and adhered to the regulations put in place by local lawmakers. On the other side of the debate is Uber, a multi-billion dollar global corporation that operates an app-based “ridesharing” service that seamlessly connects available drivers and customers. The catch, of course, is that these drivers are not paying the same fees as cab drivers. They do not carry the same level of insurance and do not adhere to the same local rules regarding driving for hire.
It is no surprise that cab drivers want Uber and other “ridesharing” services removed from the market place. Given how inexpensive and efficient Uber is compared to traditional taxis, it is also no surprise consumers have embraced the online “ridesharing” service. Here forms the crux of a debate giving municipal regulators headaches for months: an existing cab regulation system that some have paid vast sums to join is confronted by a popular app-based service seemingly beyond municipal reach.
So, how should municipal regulators respond? Frankly, they’re not really sure. Some have sought an injunction against Uber. Others have directed staff to study the issue. Others have deferred the issue and then deferred it again and again and again. No city in Canada has confronted the issue head on. At least, not yet.
As a result, frustrations are boiling over. This week cab drivers in Toronto staged a massive protest, virtually shutting down traffic in parts of the city. In response, Mayor John Tory begged for calm and explained, again, that the City is working to find a solution. Needless to say, neither cab drivers nor commuters were left satisfied.
Through the void left by municipal lawmakers enters provincial and federal actors. Today, newly elected Brampton East MP Raj Grewal issued a press release pleading with John Tory to level the regulatory field between Uber and existing cab drivers. The other week, the federal Competition Bureau felt compelled to chime in on the debate, arguing that an “overhaul” of the entire system was desperately needed, while chiding municipal regulators for not acting fast enough to tackle the problem.
On the provincial side, former PC Party leader Tim Hudak wants the province to handle ridesharing regulation. He has been trumpeting his private members bill, “Opportunity in the Sharing Economy Act” as a solution for months. Of course, there is no guarantee provincial regulators can do a better job than municipal regulators. Municipalities should also be wary of the province moving into their regulatory space. Inaction has consequences. If municipal governments are not careful, they could see previously sole areas of regulatory control captured by other levels of government. Act now, or perhaps lose the ability to act at all.
In any case, something like taxi regulation should never involve federal MPs, the competition bureau or provincial politicians. It’s the responsibility of municipalities to figure out a solution and the clock is ticking.
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