Ride share services get huge breaks while taxis follow the rules

City Hall | by Paul Dechene

The “Vehicles For Hire” bylaw passed at the Feb. 25 council meeting and, with that, the way is now clear for Uber and Lyft to start taking rides around the Queen City.

It’s a day that many feel is long overdue. But what we are now left waiting on is any indication of when city hall plans to modernize its taxi bylaw.

Administration promised to reopen that document at last month’s council meeting but didn’t give any timeline on when that could start. And yet, with ride-sharing apps likely to launch within the next month or two, there is some urgency as the cab companies that spoke against the vehicle for hire bylaw have legitimate reasons to be both worried and frustrated.

The way things are set up right now, Regina’s 21st-century transportation marketplace will be hopelessly stacked against taxi drivers.

Rules? Pfft! That’s Taxi-Talk

Currently, city hall legislates that taxis have to make a series of costly capital investments in everything from in-car cameras to credit/debit card machines. Their cars can be no older than eight years. They have to pay for dispatching services.

On top of this, city hall also sets the prices cabs are able to charge. First, there’s a minimum $4.00 pick-up fee and then city hall also sets maximum prices per kilometre and per minute.

They say a strictly limited pricing scheme is necessary to protect consumers, but in effect it creates a pricing bottleneck as taxi owners can’t pass on their capital costs to their customers. And that means those costs land squarely in the laps of cab drivers, who end up having to work long hours for very low pay.

It’s a clumsy, broken, inefficient system and it’s 100 per cent city hall’s creation.

And now, to add insult to injury, council has just paved the way for the comparatively unregulated ride-sharing industry to come into town and stomp on every cab driver’s neck.

City hall has set taxis up to fail. If I drove a cab, I’d be totally pissed.

It was sad, then, to sit in Henry Baker Hall last month and watch delegation after delegation step up to the podium and blame the taxi industry for its faults as though cabbies were in control of their fate.

As one self-described “free-market businessman” put it: “I would like you to consider the complacency of taxi cab companies in the rapid acceptance of ride share. Uber will be 10 years old this March. In Regina, the taxi industry chose to sit idly by rather than lobby to allow them to operate similar to a ride-share company. If they had put in as much energy five years ago to modify the bylaws that govern them as they are right now to prevent ride share from coming to our city, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

Hmm… now what were taxi companies doing five years ago? Well, 2014 would be the year by which council said they had to have GPS installed in all their vehicles. They had until a year later to install city-mandated cameras. These were the result of rules council imposed in 2012 which cab companies had lobbied hard over.

So it’s hardly like the taxi industry is being weighed down by some antiquated regulations. There are many costs cab drivers have to cover that council imposed on them within the 2010s.

It’s particularly rich, then, for council to then turn around and say with the passage of these ride-sharing rules that they’re just introducing some competition into the market. City hall legislated the taxi industry into stasis and set up the conditions so that only a few companies would be able to thrive. And now, council is allowing transnational ridesharing corporations to operate essentially unfettered in this distorted marketplace they’ve devised.

It’s like turning Ferengi freebooters loose on… well, Regina cab drivers. The Rules Of Acquisition are going to crush them.

That said, not all drivers want to stop the ride-share juggernaut. From speaking with representatives from the United Steelworkers’ Union — which represents drivers for Regina Cabs — I got the sense the union is not outright opposing the new bylaw because many of their drivers are interested in working for a ride sharing platform.

It’s interesting how council and the many pro-ride sharing delegations just blithely danced right past the race component of the taxi industry. Cab driver is a high-risk, low-prestige, low-paying job, so it ends up being filled disproportionately by new immigrants. And over the past 10 years, city hall has only increased the burden on these new immigrant drivers and cab owners.

Still, we had an all-white council and a mainly white pro-ride sharing contingent put on a pantomime about transportation modernization while the near-term result will be to disadvantage a community of predominantly non-white taxi drivers.

There’s something unsavoury about that.

But the rules have passed. Uber and Lyft say they’ll be up and running in Regina in a matter of weeks. And things are going to be unicorns and rainbows for people wanting to hail a ride.

For the time being, anyway.

I can’t remember who pointed this out to me, but on the subject of all the regulations restaurateurs have to put up with, they said, “For every license you have to get and food-safety rule you have to follow, there’s a story about somebody finding rat droppings in their salad or a fingernail in their soup.”

Point is, we don’t just have restaurant regulations because people can die of food poisoning but because people have died of food poisoning.

Similarly: taxis.

In 2016, Iqbal Singh Sharma, a recent immigrant to Regina and cab driver, was beaten and stabbed by one of his passengers. Sharma had to be placed in a medically induced coma and required three brain surgeries after the attack. He is still recovering from the assault.

It’s because of incidents like this that Regina requires cameras in all taxis. And it’s because of incidents involving dilapidated cabs that we have requirements around vehicle age.

In case you haven’t noticed, municipal governments are not the most pro-active organizations on the planet. Every rule we have in place is likely there because of something bad that already happened.

The only reason ride sharing isn’t regulated up the ying-yang is because it hasn’t been around very long.

Regina city council argues that Uber and Lyft’s online review system is all the protection drivers and passengers are going to need. But elsewhere, the stories about ride sharing’s dark side are already starting to accumulate. Tales of drivers being underpaid and mistreated. Tales of abusive passengers. Tales of fraudulent and criminal activity by drivers. And some cities are responding with stricter ride sharing regulations.

And while regulations will make everybody safer, as we’ve learned from the taxi industry, they come with a cost.

So, enjoy your cheap, rules-lite ride share, Regina. It won’t last.