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Toronto Toronto Uber-cabbie summit ends in acrimony, heckling

An Ontario Superior Court judge has dismissed the City of Toronto’s attempt to shut down the ride-sharing company Uber

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuter

It was meant as a bread-breaking exercise, a chance for Toronto's taxi industry and Uber – two bitterly feuding groups – to sit together at a table for the first time and resolve their differences.

In a boardroom at his office on Monday morning, Mayor John Tory welcomed about a dozen representatives of the two industries to the meeting, and said he hoped everyone could work together.

According to a source who attended the meeting, it began respectfully enough, but, as it wore on, the group became increasingly acrimonious. Taxi industry officials spoke of their frustrations with Uber and the fact that its UberX service allows ordinary drivers to pick up fares without following the rules that apply to licensed taxicabs – and hurts their business.

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By the time Uber's general manager, Ian Black, began to speak, one representative of the taxi industry was openly making faces.

"Shut UberX down," one of them eventually told Mr. Black, according to the source. He then turned to the mayor. "Just shut UberX down."

That was when the mayor ended the meeting.

What Mr. Tory later described to reporters as a "very significant" gathering – called by his office in hopes it might eventually lead to a compromise on the heated issue of Uber – is just the start of what will be an uphill battle.

Since 2012, the Silicon Valley-based company's UberX service has raised the ire of Toronto's taxi industry by operating outside the city's licensing rules. This, coupled with the city's convoluted and highly regulated taxi licensing system, frustrates cab drivers. In recent months, the tension exploded into public view with two massive cab strikes in downtown Toronto, and a threat by cab officials last week to stage a citywide strike during the Pan Am Games.

Initially, the city agreed with the cab industry's assessment that Uber is operating an illegal taxi service, and launched legal action against the company. On Friday, an Ontario Superior Court judge dismissed the case, saying the city's own bylaws have not been updated or crafted in a way to account for Uber.

The solution, Mr. Tory said in a news conference after the meeting on Monday, will be to create one set of rules for both taxis and Uber, and create an even playing field for the industry. He did not go into detail on how to do this – or say whether he might support creating a distinct category with its own rules for Uber, as several U.S. cities have done. Instead, he vowed to ask city staff to report in the fall on ways to update and review the bylaws.

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"What we need is one bylaw that applies without question to everybody," he said.

But as Monday's meeting illustrated, getting the two sides on the same page will be a challenge.

After the mayor's news conference, the taxi and Uber representatives took turns speaking, and demonstrated that they had very different interpretations of what Mr. Tory had said moments earlier to reporters, that UberX is "operating outside" current laws.

"He acknowledged that they're an illegal company – UberX is an illegal activity that's happening in the City of Toronto," Toronto Taxi Alliance spokesman Sam Moini said before urging police and bylaw officers to crack down.

Mr. Black disagreed. "Our view very clearly is that UberX is legal in the City of Toronto," he said. He was quickly drowned out by taxi drivers. "That's wrong," a couple of them shouted.

Still, Mr. Black continued – saying, as Ontario Superior Court Justice Sean Dunphy did in his Friday ruling, that the city's definition of "taxi brokerage" does not apply to Uber.

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"When he says 'outside the law,' that means the current bylaws aren't written to include UberX," he said. "It doesn't mean we can't write new bylaws."

Again, the taxi officials heckled him. As the booing continued, he cut the media scrum short.

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