Toronto City Council has voted to end years of ambiguity over ride-sharing company Uber and move forward with regulating the service – but also encouraged police and bylaw officers to crack down in the meantime.
After years of struggling over how to deal with ride-sharing technology, Toronto City Council decided in a unanimous vote Wednesday evening to revisit the city's bylaws to include companies such as Uber. City staff will now begin the arduous task of figuring out various options for bringing the service into its rules, a move that was heavily backed by Mayor John Tory and passed easily at council without debate.
But an unexpected motion from one councillor asking for greater enforcement until staff report back in September also won overwhelming support from council, sidelining Mr. Tory along the way.
The mayor was just one of two members of council to vote against asking the police board, of which he is a member, to ask Chief Mark Saunders to crack down on UberX, the service that allows ordinary drivers to pick up fare-paying passengers without following the same rules as taxis. Mr. Tory did, however, vote to ask the city's bylaw officers to enforce its rules against the company.
Afterward, the mayor said he was caught off-guard by the surprise motions by Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, but that he "voted honestly."
"I happen to know that the police are incredibly stretched right now, even in terms of filling the assignments they have to fill with respect to [the Pan Am Games]," he told reporters.
How enforcement officers might crack down is unclear given that much of the legislation, including Ontario's Highway Traffic Act and the city's by-laws, was crafted with language specifically targeting licensed taxicabs.
After a Toronto Police sting in March on UberX drivers resulted in 22 charges against 11 drivers, half of them were later dropped in court, with prosecutors acknowledging the charges did not apply.
Toronto Police have since said they are watching to see what happens with the remaining charges. But they have also made clear that they see further enforcement as an issue for the city. And in regard to council's Wednesday decision, Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said it is a matter between council and the police board, and it would be "inappropriate" to comment.
Meanwhile, the city's licensing director, Tracey Cook, said this week that staff were already planning a crackdown. But which laws would be enforced is unclear, especially after the city's court case against UberX was dismissed last week. In that decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Sean Dunphy found that the city's bylaws do not capture the service UberX provides, and that Uber is not an illegal taxi service.
Wednesday's decision begins a process of creating new regulations for Uber, but it did not include details on what those regulations might look like. Still, both Uber and taxi officials – two groups that have been locked in a bitter standoff for several years – claimed victory.
In a statement, Uber Canada spokeswoman Susie Heath thanked council for "committing to study ride-sharing" and said the company "looks forward to continuing to work collaboratively with Mayor Tory and City Council on a permanent regulatory solution in the City of Toronto."
Other cities that have regulated Uber have done so by creating a distinct category for ride-sharing, allowing UberX to operate under its own set of rules, distinct from taxis. But Sajid Mughal of the iTaxiworkers Association said the taxi industry expects that under new by-laws, Uber would follow the same rules as cabs. "No preferential treatment will be accepted by the cab industry," he said.
He added that Wednesday's decision – especially with the request for enforcement – will likely appease the thousands of taxi drivers who have recently staged mass protests and threatened to "shut down" the city during the Pan Am Games.