Just when you think peace is about to break out in the taxi industry, a new set of proposed “reforms” ignites a new wave of discontent.
The editorial cartoon in publisher John Duffy’s industry journal, Taxinews, tells you all you need to know about reaction to the list of 44 recommendations from the city’s licensing division. A sturdy middle finger punctuates the hood of a cab, under the caption, “A hood ornament for the times . . .”
“This is an attack on everyone: the driver, owner, fleet operators, brokerages,” reads one headline.
Notice, there is no mention of the customer — the taxi-hailing public.
Andy Reti, who owns three taxi licences and has been around for more attempts to fix the industry than he cares to recall, wrote, in this email:
“The industry warned them, their own staff warned them — to no avail . . . Now they are trying to fix the mess on our backs. For the first time they managed to piss off everybody at the same time.”
Well, not quite, but you get the idea.
“You and I both know, no one is ever happy,” says Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who’s been in or near every reform since 1998. “The discontent is around carving up the taxi dollar. When one gets a dollar, another loses a dollar, so they are not happy. Most of the people in the industry don’t put the customer first, they put their wallets first.”
A brief history. At the turn of the millennium, Toronto’s fleet of taxicabs was rundown and unsafe and driven by slovenly drivers without proper training. Enterprising super cabbies bought up numerous plates, leased them out and skimmed off millions from the industry, even as they lived in sunny climes while the drivers struggled to earn a wage.
Then, more than three-quarters of the city’s taxi licences were held by people who didn’t use them personally. Cab plate holders included dentists, lawyers, airline pilots and Bay Street investors. Some families collected up to 145 plates, worth $90,000 each on the open market in 1998.
A couple of attempts at reform land us in 2013. For the most part, our cabs are in good shape. Drivers are better trained. Many of the blood-suckers are gone. And despite claims the reforms would damage the industry, the value of cab plates has jumped beyond $300,000.
On the surface all seems fine. But inside the industry, a persistent push for changes created the latest attempt at reform. The most consistent complainers have been owners of Ambassador cabs, created out of the 1998 compromise.
Drivers got the Ambassador plates on condition they didn’t lease out the cab and could not sell their licence. It was supposed to give them a shot at working for themselves. But from the outset, the Ambassador plate owners nurtured a desire — and openly advocated for it — to one day transfer the Ambassador Plate into a standard plate. So they could cash in.
If an Ambassador car owner is sick, his business is ruined, they argued. And it made sense. So the new reforms, being discussed in public meetings this week and all summer, allow Ambassador plates to be transformed to regular plates.
One catch: the standard plate has been revamped. The new Toronto Taxicab Licence will be the only one available. The plate can be sold, but only to a person with a taxicab licence, one plate per owner, sold to someone working as a cabbie, and, most controversially, as long as the new licencee purchases an accessible cab.
Well, at an estimated $45,000 to $50,000 per pop — plus higher insurance — there are few happy campers.
Only 3.5 per cent of Toronto cabs are wheelchair-accessible. The numbers need to grow, and quickly. But do we need 4,849 of these?
With the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games coming in 2015, the city needs to at least double the fleet of accessible cabs. Getting to 100 per cent, using the taxi industry as the vehicle, is a political fight that will unfold this fall.
As usual, a taxi industry reform is a solution looking for a problem.