After years of painstaking planning, traffic modelling studies and massive public-awareness campaigns aimed at keeping traffic moving during the Pan Am Games in Toronto and region, the event could now be facing a new hurdle: the threat of a taxi strike that could shut down some of the city's most crucial corridors in the middle of the games.
Taxi officials in Canada's largest city said Thursday that the industry is "on its last legs" and threatened to "shut down" Toronto during the Games if police and Mayor John Tory don't crack down on the ride-sharing company Uber, which cab drivers allege operates an illegal taxi service.
At the centre of the heated debate is the Silicon Valley-based company, which operates in 57 countries around the world and brings together passengers with paid drivers. Recent violent anti-Uber protests in France led to widespread traffic chaos and the arrest of two Uber executives.
Officials in Toronto, like cities across Canada and around the world, have struggled with regulating Uber – and in particular, its UberX service. UberX allows ordinary drivers as opposed to licensed taxis to pick up passengers in their own cars for a fare, prompting questions about safety and liability, issues which have been exacerbated by multiple instances of alleged assaults by Uber drivers.
Sajid Mughal, whose iTaxiworkers Association represents more than 500 cab drivers in Toronto, told reporters Thursday "the message we're getting from the drivers is that we should shut down the city." Mr. Mughal said the group currently has no plans to stage job action during the Pan Am Games, which are set to begin next Friday and are expected to bring 10,000 athletes and 250,000 visitors into the region. But, Mr. Mughal said, this is a very real possibility if Mr. Tory and Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders do not act.
"It's not us that want to shut down the city. It's the mayor who is pushing us," he said. "It's the police chief who is pushing this cab industry to take job action."
Sam Moini, a spokesman for the Toronto Taxi Alliance, which represents more than 2,000 cab owners and licence-holders, said a taxi strike is "absolutely the last thing that we want." Still, he said, "when people feel that they have nothing left to lose, they become dangerous. We don't want that to happen in Toronto." Mr. Moini said that his members have seen a 40-per-cent to 50-per-cent drop in their incomes as a result of Uber.
While licensed taxi drivers in Toronto are subject to a long list of regulations, including set fares and insurance and safety requirements, UberX drivers do not follow the same rules – arguing that it is a technology company and not a taxi company.
Still, city officials have made attempts to regulate Uber. Late last year, the city turned to the courts to seek an injunction against the company, and both parties are still awaiting a judge's decision. And in March, Toronto Police led a weeklong sting on UberX drivers, only to have half of the 22 charges withdrawn in June.
Complicating matters is an ongoing debate at Toronto City Hall over the matter. Mr. Tory has voiced support for the possibility of creating new rules to account for the type of ride-sharing service Uber provides.
In a statement Thursday, the mayor's office said he urges all sides to work together and come to a solution, and that he's sympathetic to the situation of the cab drivers. "But we reiterate the best solution is to come to the table and move this industry forward," the statement said. "Strong-arm tactics and veiled threats will not accomplish anything."
Uber Canada, meanwhile, issued a statement saying that Uber and the taxi industry can co-exist. "We would welcome a dialogue with the taxi industry and are happy to come to the table to find common-sense solutions that put people first."
The Pan Am Games will run from July 10 to 26. Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant Peter Leon said that officers are aware of the possibility of taxi protests and are monitoring the situation. Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash, meanwhile, said there are "contingency plans in place to cover all situations" during the Games.