Listen to 10 words that will strike fear into the warm, beating heart of any Toronto small-business owner.
“Hi. I’m from City Hall and I’m here to help.”
The last time that phrase was whispered in the vicinity of Nathan Phillips Square, food truck vendors shuddered. It was 2009 and they collectively felt the full force of council meddling in their industry.
The controversial Food A La Cart program was an attempt to standardize streetside carts under the benign aegis of city hall.
It remains a monumental failure of municipal policy and an example of how the public sector should not seek to strangle the private sector with arbitrary rules, regulations and bright shining mountains of red tape.
The A La Cart scheme forced vendors to over capitalize their operations by using a single, council-mandated design that forced them out of business if not into bankruptcy.
All within 12 months.
Now, councillors are back trying to standardize yet another fiercely competitive service industry.
The city has been conducting a comprehensive review of Toronto’s taxicabs ahead of the 2015 Pan/Parapan Games. It promises the biggest shake up in a generation in the way the taxi industry is run.
In June 2013, the Framework for Change was released with the following key items highlighted for further input: how to improve customer service, increase accessibility, maintain or reduce fares, improve driver safety, update technology and harmonize the existing licensing structure.
A final staff report with recommendations will be delivered to the Licensing and Standards Committee on Jan. 23, 2014.
The proposed new plans include some of the following key provisions: All taxis to be wheelchair accessible; fire hydrants will double as cabstands, where drivers will be required to stay inside their vehicles, ready to drive or move in case of an emergency; digital screens will be installed in all cabs and drivers will have the right to ask for a maximum deposit of $25 before they start driving with the option of a $25 charge if the cab is soiled during the ride.
Souter is the leading voice in a coalition of taxi administrators who have joined under the banner of the Toronto Taxi Alliance to warn city hall to leave the system alone.
“I don’t think the general Toronto public are aware that, if all these proposals go through, they will be faced with both higher fares and longer wait times,” Souter said. “We commissioned a survey through Angus Reid Forum that revealed 83% of Torontonians don’t even know the Toronto Taxi Review exists.
“It’s not just a rise in fares and a decline in service the recommendations will deliver if all are adopted. There is the danger that comes with exhausted, over-worked drivers who cannot afford to be off the road because they lose so much money,” she said.
The major drawback for Souter is the proviso that, by 2025, all Toronto taxicabs be wheelchair accessible and compliant with a special, council-approved design. She says that is cost prohibitive. It will make the taxi business more expensive, less competitive and overwhelmingly capital intensive to a degree that is financially crippling.
“Bureaucrats are proposing that an entire industry be upended to serve 1% of the customer base,” Souter argued. “Who benefits when there is a single, standardized design with all identical services? It only benefits the manufacturer of the vans and equipment. Any higher costs we know will be passed on to other passengers, cab drivers or the environment.
“Just imagine if these reforms are passed, all owner-drivers will be forced to spend $50,000, at least, on each new converted or purpose-built vehicle. This is the base price. Don’t forget ramp and possible engine modifications to bigger engines -- costs that users will ultimately offset.
“Why all that capital intensive work to standardize the service when we know for a fact that only 1% of calls for taxis in Toronto require a wheelchair accessible vehicle,” she added.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Taxi Reform Committee, said an ideal target would be to have 10% of taxis accessible to the handicapped by the 2015 Pan Am Games.
Minnan-Wong was instrumental in drafting reforms that led to a Passenger Bill of Rights and the introduction of the Ambassador Class vehicles.
“I want to hear from each and every stakeholder about what they want, need and expect from our cab services. That includes drivers, owners and, of course, the public,” he said. “Yes, it makes for a very vigorous debate, but I just want to improve things.”
Souter and her association argue the reforms would lead to fewer vehicles on the road. Small operators will be excluded because of escalated start-up costs.
Jafar Mirsalari may be one of them.
Mirsalari has been driving on Toronto’s streets for 27 years after escaping from Iran for a new life in Canada. He fears he will be forced out if he is made to comply with every single city hall demand.
“I say some are just crazy,” Mirsalari said. “Who decided on the introduction of a new Vehicle Identity Technology or the new owner-operated plate called the Toronto Taxi Licence?
“We now have the Ambassador plates that are highly restrictive and, because they can’t be transferred or loaned, it means somebody like me drives 14 hours a day and six days a week,” he said. “When I don’t drive, my car sits on the side of the road and earns nothing. What is the point? I cannot get any return on my investment.”
More costly vehicles, more costly running, more costly plates; Mirsalari has heard it all before.
He says Toronto taxicabs are not perfect but finishes with this: “Can anyone point to a perfect cab system anywhere in the world? Over regulation is the sure first step to diminished services.”