Picture a fleet of wheelchair-accessible taxi vans, one waiting at every fire hydrant in the city, with an owner-driver inside who might ask for your fare upfront and will definitely charge you $25 if you spill your drink or throw up in the car.
This is the future of taxis in Toronto — if city council’s 44 recommendations are adopted in the biggest overhaul of the business ever undertaken.
Previous reviews were largely successful in improving cab cleanliness and maintenance. This review takes aim at the ownership structure, trying to eliminate the non-driving “middlemen” that the city says don’t contribute to the industry and drive up costs for all.
But the recommendations, if implemented, will also radically transform the experience of taking a cab in Toronto. Here’s how:
- All taxis will be wheelchair accessible.
- Fire hydrants will become cab stands, where drivers will be required to stay inside their vehicle, ready to drive or move in case of an emergency.
- Digital screens will be installed in all cabs, showing the fare, cab number and the driver’s photo. They could be set up in the future with a GPS to keep riders informed of their progress.
- Drivers will have the right to ask for a maximum deposit of $25 before they start driving and can charge $25 if the cab is soiled during the ride.
- Cabs will be required to have machines to take credit or debit card payments. A cap, yet to be determined, will be placed on fees charged for electronic payments.
- Taxis will be added to the streets on a rolling basis to maintain current passenger wait times of about nine minutes.
- All taxi owners will be required to drive their own cabs, at least part of the time, and will not be permitted to hire agents to manage their cabs for them.
Under the aegis of the Toronto Taxi Alliance, taxi companies have come out fiercely against the city’s recommendations. Beck Taxi president Gail Souter, who co-founded the Taxi Alliance, says minivans modified to accommodate wheelchairs cost three times more than an average sedan. Their bigger engines will consume more fuel and the higher costs will force fares to rise, she said.
But city Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker calls those arguments “a lot of smoke and hot air.”
Additional costs for the vans will be offset by the money saved on getting rid of middlemen, he says, and fares won’t have to go up.
What’s more, he says, it’s just the right thing to do.
“To provide fully accessible cabs across the city is a beautiful thing and will transform people’s lives,” he said.
The current Wheel-Trans system can’t keep up with demand, said the councillor, who also sits on the TTC. People who don’t have alternatives to Wheel-Trans can never be spontaneous, because travel has to be planned 24 hours in advance, he said.
But people don’t live their lives like that.
“When it rains out, you want to grab a cab. When it’s cold out, you want to grab a cab. When you’re running behind schedule, you want to grab a cab,” he said. “With accessible cabs, it will open up the floodgates.”
“We’ll soon have an equal playing field for everyone. Anyone will be able to hail a cab on Queen St., even if you’re in a wheelchair.”
Crown Taxi general manager Ernie Grzincic says making taxis 100 per cent accessible is “unworkable and a bad idea,” and that less than 1 per cent of trips require them.
Experience shows that many people with disabilities that don’t involve using a wheelchair “find wheelchair-accessible taxis inaccessible,” Grzincic said.
“People with canes and walkers have trouble climbing into these uncomfortable vans,” he said. “They prefer to slide into a back seat and then swing their legs in.”
De Baeremaeker says the cab owners are using the accessible cabs proposal as an excuse to avert all the proposed reforms
“Everyone will get better service, not just those with mobility issues,” he said.
While a final report on the reforms was supposed to be submitted this September, outcry among taxi owners and brokers has pushed that back to Jan. 23, 2014.