Is Uber Inching Towards Legalization in Mississauga?

After a year or so of studying the issue, hashing out the details, and facing intense confrontations with the taxi industry, Mississauga residents will finally know how Uber—as well as other Transportation Network Companies (TNC)—will legally operate in Canada's sixth largest city.

Mississauga councillors at General Committee (GC) heard back from city staff through a report last week outlining the parameters for the TNC Pilot Program in Mississauga. The reason why city staff was doing this report was because the special committee set up to look into TNCs was constantly being interrupted by allegedly disruptive and vocal groups of taxi drivers, hence the committee disbanded and punted the issue to city staff to complete the work.

The recommendations staff made in their report were the following:

  • Mississauga implement a by-law permitting an 18 month Pilot Project, starting from July 1, 2017, ending on December 31, 2018.

  • Another by-law should be enacted to amend the Public Vehicle Licensing By-law 420-04, as amended, to minimize impediments to taxi and limousine operators providing service in a manner competitive with TNCs.

  • That staff report to General Committee at the completion of the Pilot Project with recommendations for future regulations for the public vehicle industry.

Through this Pilot Project, the city of Mississauga is looking to achieve five specific objectives:

  • To confirm that TNCs are collecting appropriate, current information for those registered with the TNC, particularly related to driver and vehicle standards, to ensure consumer protection and public safety.

  • To ensure that TNC users are receiving the service that they have requested from individuals who are authorized to do so under the TNC licensing structure.

  • To identify the number of requests that TNCs receive for accessible service, their capability to service these requests and their ability to satisfy this demand in a regulatory framework.

  • To test a regulatory framework for TNCs, as well as the proposed by-law deregulations for the taxi and limousine industries, to determine their effectiveness and sustainability, prior to bringing forward more permanent regulations for General Committee's consideration at the conclusion of the Pilot Project.

  • To determine the TNCs appetite for regulations and willingness to adhere to formal legislative requirements aimed at ensuring public safety and consumer protection.

Of course, this Pilot Project does come with some specific licensing fees:

  • A TNC Brokerage licensing fee of $20,000 on an annual basis, and;

  • A TNC Vehicle Operator licensing fee of about 30 cents for each ride originating within Mississauga collected and remitted by the TNC on the 15th of every month. (In retrospect, this fee is a bit high in comparison to other cities like Calgary and Ottawa, who have licensing fees on the vehicle operator around 11 cents).

There were some other points of note from the report. One was that Uber basically refused to cooperate with providing data on how many TNCs were operating in Mississauga. Data was collected through benchmarking measures, and Mississauga city staff arrived at to the conclusion that 60,000 trips were made within Mississauga by TNCs.

Another point in the report was that new taxi license plate issuance was to be suspended during the duration of the Pilot Program. This is being proposed as a proactive measure to reduce competitive pressure on the existing fleet of licensed taxicabs. However, accessible taxi plates will continue to be issued in accordance with the requirements of the Public Vehicle Licensing by-law.

While there are licensing fees for TNC brokerages and vehicle operators, TNC drivers themselves will not require a municipal licence because under the regulatory framework proposed for the Pilot Project, the TNC itself will be licensed by the city and the TNC drivers themselves will be operating under the TNC licence. This aligns with a self-regulatory model and places the onus on the TNC to comply with municipal regulations.

The entire General Committee meeting can be viewed here, but I would like to summarize briefly and provide some feedback on what was said and what happens moving forward.

Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish has undoubtedly been the most vocal opponent of Uber operating in Mississauga. Her position is very clear cut because her view is that they are an illegal operation, and that allowing even a pilot program is only a slippery slope to making an illegal operation like TNCs a permanent part of the transportation mix in Mississauga. She asked for a vote on a motion to refer the pilot to the city's Public Vehicle Advisory Committee (PVAC), in order for all the councillors to have a good look at it alongside people who would most likely be affected by Uber's legalization in the market, mainly the taxi industry representatives.

Parrish may be clear in her position, but her strategy seems underhanded. She would like the matter to be brought to PVAC, which is primarily stacked with members representing the taxi industry. As Mayor Bonnie Crombie outlined in her remarks, the special committee that was set up previously had a membership base that would have been more balanced with people from the taxi industry and TNCs equally represented. Every time the special committee met, they would constantly be interrupted by shouting from taxi representatives in attendance, and every time that happened the special committee would have to take recess and eventually postpone the meeting.

Now you're going to send it back to PVAC, Crombie asked, after a year or so of studying the issue to death and quite possibly opening up to the same result? Nothing has changed other than that 3 million more trips have been taken via TNCs, which staff worked out to be roughly 60,000 a week. At this point, is it really an illegal business if there is that big of a consumer base using it? PVAC in Crombie's view is too narrow because only one group is really represented: taxi drivers and those from the taxi industry. The industry is expanding, not collapsing, Crombie said, and that's why we need to deal with this.

Councillor John Kovac said to Insauga that while he supported the idea of a pilot program, he believes that it could have been improved if it went back to PVAC for a further look. I'm actually somewhat disappointed in Kovac's remarks. I get that as a rookie councillor he might not want to put his face out there too boldly. But figuratively and literally speaking, he is the only person of the millennial generation on council, a generation who understands the sharing economy better than generations before. It would have been better to hear him speak from the millennial’s perspective, instead of following Parrish's lead and to have the issue go around another circle again.

Ward 6 Councillor Ron Starr, who was chairing the special committee and was not a fan of the Pilot program, asked Mayor Crombie why wasn't any HST collected while Uber was operating illegally. He chided the Mayor for not using her connections with federal and provincial politicians to lobby for that. Starr was yelling at this point, and he's not usually someone who yells in the council chamber.

Chris Schafer, the Public Policy Manager for Uber, then got up to speak. He said he understood the challenge Mississauga was going through because the province has not created one standard policy for TNCs across Ontario, so the onus is on city governments to do it. He also mentioned that drivers are not limited by geographic boundaries. One city's regulations would therefore have little or no teeth in another city in the region.

Therefore, having TNC drivers obtain medical certificates would not work because if Mississauga requires it, they don't know when a driver will do a pickup in Mississauga. Schafer said then we would then have to require 30,000 drivers to comply when outside of Mississauga they wouldn't have to. It is the same with criminal background checks, which in Mississauga would require checking into the local police station. Other cities use the database of the Cobourg Police Service, who actually makes money off of providing information. Finally, Schafer said TNC drivers can just turn the Uber app off when they're doing pickups in Mississauga, thus allowing them to ignore the pilot (which isn’t really a helpful thing to say, as it comes off as something of a veiled threat).

I guess comments like that prompted Parrish to respond not too kindly, and this was probably the most "heated" exchange during the GC. She asked Schafer if he is proposing that council make amendments on the fly or send it back to PVAC. Parrish asked if Schafer made his suggestions during his time on the special committee; what she was hoping for were simple yes or no answers and Schafer wasn't giving them, instead he was giving long winded answers.

"You must have been a really bad kid in school, even though you are smart," Parrish replied to Schafer. She was asking for simple yes or no, but Schafer kept talking.

"I don't want to listen to you talk anymore, when I listen to you I get angry," said Parrish. Schafer, by not giving simple yes or no answers to her questions, had Parrish tell him to 'stop talking' at one point, which is equivalent to telling somebody to shut up. Councillor Parrish even scolded the chair of GC, Councillor Jim Tovey, for not doing a good job, and said she didn't want to hear Schafer talk anymore.

Then we heard from one of the more prominent taxi industry representatives, Karam S. Punian, who is a current member of PVAC and in past meetings was the one causing some of the alleged disruption. He disputed Crombie's claim that PVAC is stacked with only one interest group, saying members were duly elected by peers. That may be true, but as you can see, the current membership is obviously made up mainly of members from the taxi industry. Punian explained that certain linguistic barriers of taxi members don't allow them to properly express what they feel or understand what's going on, hence it comes off as 'disruption.' He also brought up how members of his industry have mortgaged their homes in order to pay for their kids going to post secondary education.

Another taxi industry representative, a gentleman named Al Moore, made a lot of comparisons to other cities. He mentioned the by-law passed in Toronto and how the money going to Uber could have gone to taxi drivers to increase their earnings and improve their quality of life. Moore also disputed that Uber could be stopped; Frankfurt, Germany slammed down hefty fines on Uber drivers and Uber ($250,000 Euros per driver, driver charged and Uber gets the bill), and Kansas successfully banned Uber from operating in their state.

In the end, Mississauga council passed the Pilot Program by a vote of 7-4, with Councillors Parrish, Starr, Kovac and George Carlson opposing it. It was surprising to see Ward 8 Councillor Matt Mahoney, who has been known in the past to side frequently with Parrish on issues, vote in favour of the program. Even if Mahoney voted against, it still would have narrowly passed 6-5, but him doing the opposite made him almost like a 'swing vote' in this situation.

So it will be interesting to see what happens next year when there is a municipal election. The taxi industry is an intensively organized group of people and they've shown that they can, indeed, disrupt proceeding and stall council business. If they decide to mobilize for the 2018 election, either by supporting alternative mayoral or council candidates who are anti-Uber, or running a slate themselves, they could pose an interesting factor in the next municipal election.

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