Opinion: In rush to catch up with Uber, city shouldn't leave public behind

Buckle up. It could be a wild ride as changes to city rules for taxis and “Private Transportation Companies” (PTC's; that'd be Uber) go from zero to sixty in three months flat.

Last spring, even while slapping Uber drivers with fines for violating last century's taxi bylaws, city staff, with an assist from KPMG, started trying to untangle the regs for the realities of this one.

The results, a substantial proposed shake-up of the taxi and limo regime even as Uber and its future competitors are pulled into the regulatory tent, debuted at city hall last Thursday.

From there the new rules zip right along to committee this Thursday, city council April 13 and, assuming they pass those votes, into effect June 30.

On the face of it, many of the measures seem even-handed. No matter who's in the driver's seat, they'll need to carry the same $5 million worth of insurance and get criminal and driving record checks and inspections of vehicles, none of which can be older than 10 years.

Logically enough, this attempt to level the playing field involves adjusting the level of fees and regulations for taxis (less of both) and PTC's (at least some of each).

As soon as the proposals landed last week, we immediately heard from the vested interests, taxi companies and drivers (emphatically not thrilled) and Uber (exceedingly non-committal), ahead of one-on-one “stakeholder consultations” the city has promised them right away.

But that level of attentiveness declines considerably for the average customer, who can't afford contributions to councillors' election campaigns or lobbyists to defend their interests.

The city's taxi report makes regular reference to the public interest, rightly noting that taxis are an adjunct to our public transportation network and that companies like Uber offer healthy competitive spurs to price and service: “The public wants both options – they want choice – and they want adequate protection.”

OK, fine. But when does the public get to let council know what else they might want?

Unless you've got the time to hop down to city hall Thursday morning and get on the delegate list for your five minutes' say, your opportunity to be heard is limited at this stage. After that, it goes to full council, which is, as a rule, too busy to hear directly from mere citizens.

The history of taxi regulation here shouldn't inspire unqualified public confidence. A small thing like the proposed elimination of a $1.50 surcharge for paying your taxi fare by credit or debit, for example, seems entirely reasonable until you ask why it was being charged in the first place. When the fee can be dropped so easily, it's hard to conclude it was anything other than a chiseling little cash grab.

The city's taxi report recognizes it may have to revisit certain decisions after the rubber hits the road and they see how things play out in reality, but how much trouble could they avoid with a closer listen to those who hail cabs and summon Uber rides?

At least, no matter what unexpected hassles emerge from the big shift on June 30, OC Transpo will get you around all day July 1 for free. Happy Canada Day.

Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital for Metro.

This article originally appeared on metronews.ca on April 5.