Public Vehicle (Uber) Pilot Program Committee Begins

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The first meeting of the Public Vehicle Pilot Program Committee was held early last week, in the hearing room next to the council chamber at the Civic Centre.

It was actually a pretty nice room, the windows allowed a lot of natural lighting to permeate and the space was very open for both public and committee members.

I would say, however, that the acoustics could use some work, as I personally had some trouble initially hearing some of the committee members making their remarks. The only person I managed to hear clearly at first was Mayor Crombie, and that's mainly because her speaking style is to project her voice so people can hear her.

The first thing that came out of people's mouths was the issue of conflict of interest, and that was cited because some of the members of the committee were also members of the Public Vehicle Advisory Committee (also known as PVAC).

And there is a difference. PVAC deals with matters primarily related to the taxicab, limousine and livery services in Mississauga. Because they never dealt with the issue of TNCs (transportation network companies, such as Uber) before, a special committee was set up to create a pilot program.

Bureaucracy gets weird sometimes.

Al Cormier, a citizen member of the committee, was quite an interesting fellow. I did not get the sense that he came to the meeting biased for either the taxi industry or the TNC sector. He seems like one of those retired gadflies who studies things in great detail in his spare time.

He asked interesting questions about how TNCs corresponded with the way cities were developing and even brought in a book he was reading, "America's Urban Future" by Ray Tomalty and Alan Mallach. The Corporate Report drafted for the committee cited many American jurisdictions where a TNC pilot program occurred, and Cormier asked why Canadian cities were not used as examples that Mississauga could emulate. I'm guessing this is because the city hired Windels Marx Lane and Mittendorf LLP, a law firm based mostly in New York and New Jersey, to conduct the studies of other jurisdictions. Cormier gave some interesting ideas, such as making sure TNCs accommodate the disabled and perhaps test driving TNCs on one side of the city first, using Hurontario as a boundary between western and eastern portions of Mississauga.

Chris Schafer is the public policy director of Uber, so he was obviously the TNC representative on the committee. I do believe ride sharing is a service that should be available as an option, but personally I found Schafer to give off a very unpleasant vibe. Before the meeting started, I overheard him chatting with the legislative coordinator of council about how he took Uber into Mississauga from Toronto, and during the entire committee meeting, while he kept his cool, it seemed as though he had better things to do with his time than educate the rubes here in the 'burbs about his company's innovative way to move people around. He came in with all these statistics, facts and other details that he expected the other committee members to just absorb on face value, without providing a report or anything written down for further study, which Councillor Starr chided him for not doing. Schafer said that under the terms of the agreement, the timeframe did not allow him to draft that information ahead of time, but it sounded like he was blowing smoke.

I did find it amusing that Schafer brought up Detroit and Anchorage as two jurisdictions where a TNC pilot project was successfully launched and tested. Let's just keep it 100; Detroit is not exactly the safest city in America, or anywhere, where driving people around for money is worth your life. And Anchorage? That's up in Alaska, where I doubt an efficient taxi service exists anyway, so TNCs would be the only game in town. How is competing against virtually no one a good way to gauge data and compare how well you do against the competition when the competition isn't there?

Schafer isn't wrong on all fronts. When one of the suggestions for a pilot was to limit the project around the Malton area, which is close to the airport where a substantial number of taxi cabs conduct business, as well as limiting the number of TNCs to 47 (based on the number of unused but registered taxi plates), he called it basically defeating the purpose of the entire process. Schafer claims if we restrict the pilot to one area of Mississauga, you're not really studying TNCs, you're studying something else altogether. He's pretty much correct; nobody is doing the census in only one area of the country, it's all of Canada. Everybody in Mississauga has at one point in their life used a taxicab, so why would you assume only people in Malton would require ride sharing services and the rest of the city would not?

Mayor Crombie initially indicated during the council meetings when discussing setting up the pilot that she wanted a 'made in Mississauga' solution, but in this meeting she indicated that she was interested in looking at what Toronto is doing. In fact, in the next committee meeting, they're bringing in someone from Toronto to discuss what they did so Mississauga can have some idea of what to adapt. I hesitate to say this was a political flip flop, as I know Mayor Crombie personally and supported her, but that's what it looks like.

The committee concluded by taking in some comments (or as they requested, ideas) from the public in the room. Jaskarun Singh, the VP from the Airport Taxi Association, made an interesting point that shockingly I believe has not been addressed by our elected leaders. Basically if it is illegal, according to Singh, to drive people around for monetary compensation without adequate insurance and licensing, Uber has committed a crime. Instead of punishing the criminals, the city is trying to accommodate them by developing this framework that would basically allow TNCs to circumvent the law. TNCs, according to Singh, are just another form of taxi service, but providing drastically cheaper rates. This sentiment was shared by Mark Sexsmith, the taxi industry's representative on the committee.

Fascinating stuff for the first committee meeting. The next one is scheduled for June 21 at 10 am, which I understand will actually replace the regular PVAC meeting that was to take place. Citizens who wish to attend and understand the issue and where Mississauga is going when it comes to ride sharing should attend.

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