What you need to know about the Uber vs. taxi battle

The issue is coming up at this afternoon’s executive committee meeting at city hall. Here’s what you need to know.
Uber is seen on the iPhone of a driver. Uber has entered more than 100 markets, ranging from its hometown of San Francisco to Berlin to Tokyo. It started operating in Edmonton late last month. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Does Edmonton have enough taxis? The answer depends on who you talk to.

Drivers say there are enough cars and blame dispatchers for doing a poor job connecting them with customers.

But customers complain about lengthy waits on Friday and Saturday nights, and during winter cold snaps.

The debate has gone on for years with no resolution. 

Smartphone drive-share company Uber is now calling the old model into question. 

The service launched in Edmonton late last month, to the ire of local taxi drivers.

The city isn’t happy, either. Officials say these cars are illegal under the Vehicle for Hire bylaw. Although they vowed  a crackdown, the level of enforcement hasn’t changed.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based company says Edmontonians have welcomed the service. 

The issue is coming up at this afternoon’s executive committee meeting at city hall. Here’s what you need to know.

1. How many cabs does Edmonton have on the road?

Edmonton caps the number of taxi permits or plates at 1,319. The number has increased twice in the last seven years.

In 2007, the city issued 35 plates for accessible taxis, which were snapped up by three brokers.

Balraj Manhas from the United Cabbies Association wants the city to create a smartphone app to connect licensed taxis with customers. (CBC)
In March 2012, the city released 49 accessible plates and 50 regular plates. Every plate is currently in use. 

A plate owner can rent the cab to drivers, who each hold individual licences from the City of Edmonton.

“Some vehicles are split-shifted," says Garry Dziwenka, director of licensing with the city of Edmonton. "Somebody rents it for the morning and somebody rents it for the afternoon.”

Until the city increases the numbers, the only way a driver can get a plate is to buy one from an existing owner for tens of thousands of dollars.

2. Does Edmonton have enough cabs?

Recent increases have bumped Edmonton’s ratio to 1.5 per 1,000. The city is looking at increasing the number of plates by 177. That would increase the ratio to 1.7 per 1,000, as recommended by a consultant’s report prepared for the city in 2007. 

Meanwhile, Calgary is grappling with the same issues. The city had a ratio of 1.37 cabs per 1,000 before releasing 126 plates last fall. If the city approves another 257 plates, the ratio will increase to 1.6 per 1,000.

3. What is the city proposing?

Council’s executive committee will consider 10 options today.  A few try to address taxi shortages on weekends and during the winter but none directly address or acknowledge Uber. 

The options include:

  • Releasing a capped number of night plates, which allow drivers to only work Friday and Saturday nights, as well as during specified hours at night 
  • Releasing an unlimited number of night plates
  • Releasing plates that allow drivers to operate only during winter months
  • No longer limiting the number of plates, and giving them to whoever wants them, as long as drivers hold taxi licences and follow all city regulations

Balraj Manhas from the United Cabbies Association dislikes all these options. 

Night and seasonal plates don’t work, Manhas argues, because they limit the hours drivers can work, meaning they can’t make enough to support themselves and afford the costs of running a taxi.

As for the glut of demand at last call, Manhas believes bars should stagger their closing hours.

He is also calling on the city to develop a taxi app, essentially to beat Uber at its own game.

4. Why is Uber an issue?

Uber considers itself a technology company that connects users with people willing to give them a ride. Customers can summon drivers with a tap of their smartphone and the ride is billed to their credit card. 

However, the drivers don’t hold taxi licences from the city of Edmonton, which makes the cabs illegal 

In order to get a licence, drivers must present a clean driver’s abstract, pass a police background check and have completed a defensive driving course in the last five years. They also need to have class 1, 2, or 4 licences.

The cars also have to undergo annual inspections and have appropriate insurance.

Dziwenka says Uber drivers use their own cars, have class 5 licences and likely don’t have the proper insurance required to carry passengers for hire.

Drivers caught operating illegally face $1,000 fines under the vehicle for hire bylaw, and $436 fines under the business licence bylaw. 

Uber says the service is safe and the transparency of the app helps users. 

“When you use the application you know who your driver is going to be,” said Uber spokesman Xavier Van Chau. “You see their name, you see their photo, you see their licence plate number, there’s a traceable record of the ride that was taken.”

Van Chau says Uber would love to be regulated in Edmonton but suggests the regulations have to move beyond the traditional taxi model.

Recently, the State of Illinois passed legislation to allow Uber and other ride-share programs to operate legally.

Van Chau says a representative of Uber will attend today's executive committee meeting.