The commitment to increasing the safety of the city’s 11,600 drivers is laudable, coming in the wake of the killing last year of Ziad Bouzid, a dedicated husband and father of three, who was shot in the back of the head by a passenger. But the policy overhaul should also be used as an opportunity to bring much needed improvements to the taxi industry as a whole — changes that other cities have managed to implement, but that Montreal has been slow to adopt.
After a broad consultation this spring, a report with several recommendations was issued in late June. Those addressing security are strongly worded, making it clear new regulations will “require” security cameras in all the city’s 4,000-plus cabs, and make GPS locating beacons “obligatory.”
Apart from these commitments, the language in the report is rather vague, with talk of “sensitizing” the industry to the practicality of electronic payment in helping to reduce the amount of cash drivers are handling; “supporting the move toward” greening “a part” of the taxi fleet with electric hybrids by 2020; “accelerating” efforts to fight illegal operators; and “including” information during driver training about how to deal with elderly or handicapped passengers. The wording leaves the impression that customer-service concerns are not as big a priority in the short term.
The taxi industry globally is modernizing, and in keeping with Montreal’s reputation as a world-class destination, this city needs to follow suit quickly. With Montreal’s 375th birthday approaching in 2017, there is a recognition that cabbies are ambassadors of this city, often the first contact that a visitor makes upon arrival at the airport or train station.
But the vehicle fleet in 2013 was largely made up of second-hand cars with an average service lifespan of just under five years. Cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Vancouver have transformed at least half of their taxi fleets into less-polluting hybrid vehicles — and roomy cars to boot.
The hurdle to many of the substantive customer-oriented recommendations in the report are the accompanying price tags. The cameras and GPS beacons will already be an added expense for drivers, many of whom earn less than minimum wage when their take-home pay is divided by the number of hours they work. The reluctance to move to electronic payment methods is explained by the high cost of the equipment and service charges. Similarly, the high upfront cost of hybrid electric vehicles (even if there is a long-term savings on fuel costs) is the main impediment to a mandatory greening of Montreal’s cab fleet.
Montreal’s report on the industry recognizes the financial burden that these measures represent for drivers. And so the report recommends the creation of a reserve fund to help cabbies absorb the cost of the security cameras first, and maybe hybrid vehicles later. To help raise money for these expenditures, the report suggests adverting could be sold that would appear on interactive screens to be installed inside vehicles; and to help cabbies bargain for better prices, the report discusses the possibility of bulk purchasing.
Security is a legitimate concern in the taxi industry, even though statistics show crime against taxi drivers in Montreal has dropped by half since 1990.
But it is crucial that Montreal’s reform balance the needs of drivers with those of customers who have a right to expect more convenient payment options, more comfortable vehicles and fewer white-knuckle rides.