Bloor Street, Toronto
Last Friday, I wrote about New York's Boro Taxi program and the larger battle between the taxi industry and Uber. In researching the blog post I learned about the way that New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) regulate Uber and other ridesharing services.
In New York, services like Uber and Lyft, a competitor, are regulated. They are for-hire services, a catch-all for non-taxis also including black cars, limousines and community cars. Any driver in New York able to accept a passenger for a fee requires a TLC licence, a TLC licensed vehicle and commercial insurance.
I have been following the controversy over Uber as it has developed in Ontario from taxi driver protests in Toronto to more earnest driver outrage in Ottawa. The apathy of the public over the plight of the taxi industry is also understandable. Uber offers much needed price competition and a challenge to the deteriorating effects of monopoly on customer service. Who wouldn't welcome a clean car with cold water on offer, free of charge.
But while the service has the potential to shake up the industry, its attempts to operate completely outside of regulation are concerning. This becomes clear when you consider your grounds for recourse. The company might be responsive now, but users can not be sure that it will deploy investigative or disciplinary action evenly in every case.
This is why I found the TLC regulations so reassuring. When you enter a for-hire car in New York, you are reassured by a TLC badge in the window and a TLC licensed driver. If there is a problem with the trip, a complaint can be filed with Uber as well as with the TLC who maintain a collection of data from all trips taken.
So, with this I took to twitter, openly wondering why Ontario municipalities don't provide a basic level of regulation. To my surprise, the response was that the Region of Waterloo would be considering exactly that on Tuesday.
The region's new draft by-law includes licensing, equipment and insurance requirements. Also in Waterloo while the number of taxis is capped, the number of Uber vehicles is not. This type of regulation provides the regional municipality with the ability to investigate the operations of the service, congestion effects and also to investigate individual claims. The region is also provided the ability to discipline drivers directly. The by-law intends only to ensure the safety of the public and not wade into the messy conflict between the taxi industry and ride-sharing companies. To my admittedly limited knowledge, Waterloo is at the forefront of this type of regulation in Ontario.
The early reading out of Waterloo suggest that the draft by-law is at least acceptable to all parties. Public consultations on the draft by-law will soon open where we will hear more. Even if the by-law passes as is, jockeying between the taxi industry and Uber will likely continue but the municipality will have moved to ensure the safety of residents.
With such clear benefit to the public and such little anticipated impact on business, it could easily be argued that basic regulation of this type be taken province-wide by the Ontario government. This is a good idea. Battles have erupted everywhere the service has expanded in Ontario and the controversy has made some municipalities drag their feet on updating regulations. The company can also be a little pushy, regularly sending out email flashes to users to lobby on their behalf.
So province-wide regulation would be welcome to set the playing field with basic regulation and reduce the political pressures placed on municipal governments all over Ontario. Beyond that, calls for additional regulation or more of the same laissez-"faire-ness" can be settled at a local level. The long-run fate of the taxi industry and the place of Uber and others like it should be settled on the streets (in cars serving people and not an old-fashioned West Side Story type rumble).
It should be the role of government in this situation to ensure the safety of residents and the role of business to ensure its own longevity. Things get weird when those roles are mixed up.