When it comes to Toronto’s taxi industry, solutions often become the problem.
Numerous passenger complaints about slovenly drivers, poor driver training, absentee owners bilking the industry and intolerable clunkers passing for cabs forced the city to review the industry in 1998.
Now, cabs are cleaner and safer; public outcry has subsided. Cabs are replaced sooner and are more stringently inspected. And, in a key reform once hailed as a solution to many of the problems, 1,400 “ambassador cabs” have since been added to the 3,400 standard cabs.
These “ambassadors” have a special logo defining them as such, are often newer cars, and are owned and driven by one driver instead of multiple operators, round-the-clock as part of a fleet. Nirvana!
But a core feature of the ambassador cabs — put in place deliberately — lies at the heart of the current discontent within the industry. Ownership of an ambassador plate cannot be transferred, sold or leased. The only perceived benefit is to allow a driver to be self-employed, rather than work for a fleet operator or agent or plate owner.
Now, those drivers say the restrictions are too tight. If they are sick the car must sit idle while insurance and other payments continue. And, of course, they’d like to peddle the ambassador plate like owners of a standard plate.
They argue that their “sweat equity” demands they have something to show for their labour and provide security for their family.
Councillors in 1998 argued a taxi licence plate gives the operator the right to pick up passengers, not develop a business, create an inheritance and yield terrific returns from an investment.
The city kept a waiting list of drivers with three years experience who wanted a long-term career in the business. For a $5,000 fee, they got a standard licence plate.
Plate owners lobbied the city to limit issuance of new plates, arguing against flooding the market with too many cabs. The waiting list dragged to 10 years. And those with plates saw the value jump to $80,000 in 1998.
Drivers complained they were shut out. Wily operators, often with no interest in operating a cab, bought up multiple plates, while plate values jumped and cab quality plummeted.
So, the city intervened, banned further multiple ownership of plates, stopped issuing standard plates, and created a new “ambassador” class of plates for the drivers. The aim was to devalue a taxi licence plate.
Cab quality improved dramatically. But the value of 3,400 standard plates continue to soar — now fetching as much as $300,000.
Gail Beck-Souter of Beck Taxi, speaking at a briefing this week, said the city should declare the ambassador cab experiment a failure and turn them into standard cabs, creating value for them.
Imagine the legal challenges. Several drivers did not opt for the ambassador plates precisely because the city prohibited their resale. Such drivers might cry foul, if the city flip-flopped.
City staff is to report in September on the reforms. Led by Councillor Cesar Palacio, chair of the licensing committee, the city has held 15 consultations to hear from the many sides in the drama.
The press briefing attracted the Star, the Sun and Taxi News. The briefing for city councillors followed and only Councillor John Parker showed up, while Councillor Norm Kelly’s assistant made an appearance.
“You’d have to torture me to get me to attend,” said one councillor, only half jokingly.
Few councillors want to revisit this conundrum. Ironically, it is Palacio — one of the least vocal and lower profile councillors — who is charged with dispensing Solomonic wisdom on an intractable problem.
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