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A tale of two drivers: Uber versus Taxi

Is there any middle ground between the career-driven commitment of driving a taxi and the flexibility Uber provides? Or are there two fundamentally different kinds of people shuttling people around Hamilton today?

Controversial ride sharing service launched in Hamilton last month

Elda Jones has been driving a cab in Hamilton for over 25 years. She, like most drivers, isn't happy about Uber's launch in Hamilton. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Uber drivers in Hamilton are reveling in the service's expansion into the city, while traditional cab drivers are decrying an onslaught of fly-by-nighters who are horning in on their territory.

But as Uber and taxi services are drastically different in some ways, so too are the people who drive for them. Is there any middle ground between the career-driven commitment of driving a taxi and the flexibility Uber provides?

Or are there two fundamentally different kinds of people shuttling people around Hamilton today?

Blue Line's Elda Jones is one of the city's best examples of a career cabbie. Jones started driving a taxi over 25 years ago after a divorce. She got a car in the settlement, and decided to turn that into a career to help provide for her and her three kids.

"I didn't want to be one of those single mothers who were reliant on the system," she told CBC News.

She talks about the job with a fervour and positivity reserved for people who really like what they do – but it doesn't come easily. Jones says she works 55 to 60 hours most weeks now that her kids are grown.

"In this business, you kind of have to," she said. "It's not a 9 to 5 job, that's for sure."

$3K a month in expenses

And with all those hours come plenty of expenses. Jones estimates she spends about $3,000 a month to work, between commercial insurance, gas, maintenance, taxi licensing and her plates.

Mary-Jane Russell – a Caledonia resident who started driving for Uber last December in Toronto – doesn't have to worry about that kind of overhead. Since Uber launched in Hamilton last month, she's able to now work much closer to home for extra income.

Mary Jane Russell has been driving for Uber since last December to help supplement her income as a musician and songwriter. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Uber takes 20 per cent of each fare she makes, and Russell estimates she burns about $50 to $60 dollars of gas a week, working about 20 hours a week.

"It's been completely positive," Russell said. "I love working when I can work and not when I'm told to work."

The process for signing up with Uber was a relatively easy one too, she says. Her car had to be a four-door vehicle in good shape, and couldn't be more than 10 years old.

She also needed to provide proof of insurance, a clean driver's abstract for the last three years, a police record check, and a yearly emissions check. Photos of her car were necessary to prove its condition. All told, the sign-up process could be completed in about a day once the paperwork is in place, Russell says.

'It pays our mortgages and bills'

The regulations around Jones' cab are more stringent. Her vehicle can't be more than six years old, and must be inspected inside and out by the city twice a year. She also needs to provide a police record check, and needs specialized commercial insurance.

Like most cab drivers, Jones is less than thrilled that Uber is now operating in Hamilton. "It's like hitchhiking, in terms of safety," she said. "And they say they're not operating as cabs, but they clearly are."

Many cab drivers, she says, also come from different countries and rely on the job to provide for their families. "They were doctors and lawyers in their own countries, but here they drive a cab to make a living," she said.

"We do it because it's our main source of income – it pays our mortgages and our bills."

Russell does use her Uber gig as auxiliary income to supplement other work as a musician, though the income is no less important. She doesn't, however, see Uber as a total replacement for cabs, and says she finds the process extremely safe.

'It's a free market'

"I don't think there will ever be a time when people don't use taxis," she said. "But it's a market that has been in lockdown – they've had a monopoly."

"I think the future is going to be Uber-friendly. It's a free market thing."

The city disagrees. Officials have stated quite bluntly that they don't support Uber's current business model, and that they plan to ticket Uber drivers for bylaw infractions – though to date, no such tickets have been issued.

And even if they were, Uber says it will pick up the tab for any tickets issued to its drivers.

"In instances of enforcement, we will always stand behind the hardworking community of driver partners in Hamilton and believe that a regulatory solution is the best path forward," said spokesperson Susie Heath in a statement.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

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