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Taxi drivers protest against Uber during a demonstration at Bay and Queen in Toronto, Wednesday December 9, 2015. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)
Taxi drivers protest against Uber during a demonstration at Bay and Queen in Toronto, Wednesday December 9, 2015. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)

LOUIS SETA

A cabbie’s perspective on the Uber battle in Toronto Add to ...

Louis M. Seta is a taxi driver in Toronto.

Last week, a highly organized driver protest crippled parts of Toronto in a protest against UberX, the cut-rate, unlicensed car service that’s disrupting transportation wherever it launches. The turnout was large and mostly peaceful, but it did not produce the intended result of a ban or injunction against Uber. It did, however, accelerate the city’s actions toward new bylaws for the taxi industry.

Toronto taxi drivers stage massive Uber protest (BNN Video)

The city has done an excellent job of kicking the decision to create new taxi bylaws down the road, while providing no satisfaction for the taxi industry or the general public.

The one-day strike also showed that the taxi brokers’ power has been usurped by the Fleet Operators Association, in co-operation with the iTaxiworkers Association, which represents several hundred drivers and is supported by the United Steelworkers union. Despite established taxi brokers, such as Beck Taxi, asking their drivers not to participate in the demonstration, numerous Beck corporate painted cabs did take part. This may show a shift in taxi leadership.

One of the major concerns among people working in the industry is the seeming rise of radical driver leadership. The average driver is frustrated and feels he or she has limited options. They feel the industry is fighting for its life. But while that kind of fight is always difficult, the industry must be careful not to alienate the taxi-riding public in the process. Winning the hearts and minds of the public should be an extremely important part of this protest.

The Toronto taxi operators failed to present their message in a reasonable manner. They proved their driver solidarity, but at the expense of public support. Without that support, regulators will be able to do whatever they want without fear of public backlash.

The taxi industry is one of the first industries to suffer in a weak economy and one of the last to recover. Taking a cab is a luxury for many people and drivers should treat their customers with this in mind.

Unfortunately, at the time of a weak economy and decreasing customer demand, Uber entered the taxi scene. It was immediately blamed for the industry’s woes. Brokers and fleet operators blamed Uber to distract drivers from their own exploitation by the traditional industry. Driver income was dropping with no relief from rising shift rates and broker radio dues. The City of Toronto also contributed to the problem by constantly raising licence fees and introducing more and more draconian rules.

Uber’s system charges drivers on a pay-as-you-go basis, which has greatly attracted drivers to the new operation. This alone has reduced driver costs and pressure. The app service has also reduced customer waiting times and the electronic payment system makes taking a cab more convenient for many customers.

In contrast, many street and dispatch cabs still insist on cash payment only. Even the brokerage cabs that advertise card payments often demand cash, with the excuse that their machines don’t work. The industry has demanded for years that the city mandate point-of-sale machines into cabs, but the city has been reluctant to do it. The bottom line is too many altercations between drivers and passengers, and the impression that customer service is not a priority. Brokerages don’t allow individual drivers to have their own point-of-sale machines, as the brokers make large amounts of money from transactions. This situation has the city’s tacit approval.

UberX drivers don’t accept cash; all transactions are through preauthorized cards. This is safer – all transactions go through the Uber app, so drivers don’t have to carry cash.

This is highly attractive for the taxi-travelling public. Faster service, ease of payment, an app that tracks the customer’s vehicle, instant identification of the driver – these factors all contribute to the perception that Uber is safer and more efficient. (This has also had the effect of encouraging more women to work in the formerly male-dominated industry – the unexpected bonus of diversity.)

Combine this with lower fares and you have a drastic decrease in the usage of traditional taxis – and great frustration among taxi drivers.

This frustration will not be easily placated. Meanwhile, if Uber and regular cabs are placed on the same playing field – a common refrain in the taxi industry – it will have the inevitable effect of legalizing Uber drivers. Not only will the city allow Uber to pick up from prearranged orders but ultimately, at some point, it will allow them to take pickups off the street. The very enclave traditional drivers are fighting to keep for themselves will be lost. Street taxi drivers will be forced to sign up with Uber or face economic annihilation.

(Here’s a confusing side note to this whole debate. At the Toronto demonstration, many of those protesting were regional taxi drivers and airport limo drivers from outside Toronto proper. On television, one driver proudly announced that he was an airport limo driver and gave his number. One has to wonder, what concern of his is the City of Toronto conflict?)

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