After years of insisting it was merely a tech company linking drivers with riders, Uber will apply for a brokerage licence Tuesday.
After years of insisting it was merely a technology company linking drivers with riders through a smartphone app, Uber Canada says it’s now willing to be licensed as a taxi company.
Spokeswoman Susie Heath says the company, which has a ride-hailing app, will formally apply for a Toronto brokerage licence on Tuesday — but only for its taxi operations.
It is not seeking a limousine licence for its UberBlack and Uber SUV services or any licence for its UberX service, which has ordinary drivers ferrying people around in their own private vehicles.
The move comes as the city’s municipal licensing and standards division is trying to shut down Uber’s operations with a permanent court injunction, saying public safety is at risk.
At the same time, Toronto Mayor John Tory (open John Tory’s policard) has called on all parties from existing taxi companies, taxi drivers and Uber officials to work together to find a way to co-exist.
During a breakfast speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade on Monday, Tory urged “the Becks and the Ubers and the licence-holders and the drivers to come to the table and do what’s right for the people of this city — the people who are paying the fares.”
Uber’s Heath praised the mayor for prioritizing innovation and consumer interests, saying the move to seek a taxi brokerage licence was to demonstrate Uber’s desire for collaboration.
A taxi brokerage licence costs only about $400 a year — and Hailo, Uber’s former rival in North America, followed the city’s rules and held such a licence. But Hailo abandoned its operations on this continent last year.
Kristine Hubbard, operations manager for Beck Taxi, scoffed at the mayor’s request, asking why should a taxi service that operates legally negotiate with one that ignores the rules.
“I’m shocked. I’m stunned,” she said, noting Beck happily works with legal competitors and the city. “But the idea of having that conversation with a company that is operating illegally is not acceptable for us.”
Although Tory emphasized the need to cut red tape at city hall and find a way to encourage business innovation, he did not offer any specifics on how to resolve the impasse with Uber, the multibillion-dollar California firm, which prides itself as a leader in the disruptive economy.
“I won’t have the Wild West — I’ve said that many times before — but I won’t have us stuck in the 1970s either,” Tory said during his speech.
Uber had steadfastly refused to be licensed under the city’s traditional licensing system, arguing it is not a taxi company but a technology company. That’s the stance it has taken around the world, though it has been forced to back down in some jurisdictions.
It has operated here since 2012, expanding to include the UberX application, allowing ordinary drivers to use their private vehicles to ferry customers around.
Insurers have warned that personal policies may not cover rides if money changes hands. Uber has assured drivers that it has a $5-million policy that will kick in, if necessary, though it has not disclosed specific details of the policy.
The city has slapped the company with dozens of bylaw infractions, and a police sting in March nailed 11 UberX drivers for driving without proper insurance.
Tracey Cook, the city’s executive director of municipal licensing and standards, has made it clear she believes all of Uber’s operations should fall under taxi or limousine licensing.
In an affidavit filed as part of the city’s injunction application, Cook argues that Uber’s technology argument is merely an attempt at an end run around licensing requirements.
“It is ridiculous for Uber to suggest that it is providing ‘ridesharing’ services and attempt to distinguish its business from that of other taxicab brokerages on that basis,” Cook states in the affidavit. “Uber drivers are no more ‘sharing’ a ride than any other taxicab or limousine driver in the city taking a passenger from point A to point B at the request of that passenger for a fare.”
The mayor, while acknowledging the injunction hearing scheduled for later this month, questioned whether using the courts was an effective way to bring about change.
He has maintained courts are a clumsy way to settle things. “They are like a blunt instrument. They are expensive. They take a long time.”
Tory said he would prefer to see all the parties come together, for “as long as it takes, as tough as it might be because they all have their own interests, and they are all competing in a certain way, to sort this out.”