Council's bumbling reaction to Uber entrance underlines lack of vision

Council's decision to allow companies like Uber into the taxi market may be the right decision for the times, but we didn't come to it through the vision of our civic leaders.

Debate at committee and council exposed lack of clarity on issues

Ottawa mayor Jim Watson flies to India for a trade mission Friday. (CBC)

Within an hour or so of council's final vote Wednesday to allow ride-hailing companies like Uber to operate legally in Ottawa this fall, Mayor Jim Watson was boasting about how this city is one of the first in the country to do so.

He told reporters that Ottawa is an "innovation city," so how can we say no to new innovation?

But that's exactly what Watson said for months and months after Uber came onto the local scene.

When he was pressed during the election of 2014 about the emergence of Uber-like technology — the company started operating illegally in Ottawa during the final days of that fall campaign — Watson dodged the issue.

To questions about whether it was time to open up the taxi regulations in this city, Watson repeated the fact that Uber was operating illegally

Watson did little to address the fact people wanted an alternative to the traditional taxi until it was clear that Uber wasn't going away.

The mayor insists that he didn't succumb to public pressure, only that his "opinion evolved." 

Council chambers was packed Wednesday, April 13 as council reviewed a proposal to change taxi regulations and legalize ride-hailing services, such as Uber. (Chloé Fedio/CBC)
And yet, Watson also told reporters after Wednesday's council vote that Uber's "bull-in-a-china-shop methods sped up the process because the demand kept growing and growing and growing."

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people contacted his and councillors' offices demanding Uber-like taxi service.

If that's not succumbing to public pressure, then what is?

Not that council came to the wrong decision. Uber and companies like it are here to stay, as evidenced the world over. And there's massive demand for the service.

But the mayor and much of this council came to the decision through hours of disingenuous debate and a lack of clarity on facts and principles.

Camera issue was vital, until it wasn't

Consider that nine councillors voted in favour of requiring new Uber-like vehicles to install security cameras the way cabs must.

The elected officials, including councillors Rick Chiarelli, Keith Egli, Stephen Blais, Michael Qaqish and Eli El-Chantiry, all argued passionately about how customer safety is paramount.

They slammed and scolded Uber for disrespecting them and not having answers to their questions (which was true at last week's committee meeting). 

But when the motion to require the cameras was defeated, all but one of those councillors went on to approve Uber's entrance into the market. Coun. El-Chanitry was the lone dissenting voice on the staff recommendations.

If cameras were so crucial to our public safety, how is it these councillors agreed to let ride-hailing cars on the roads without them?

Of course, the hours spent by councillors discussing security cameras were based on scant facts.

Debate lacked details needed

No one bothered to invite an official spokesperson from the Ottawa Police Service to speak to how useful cameras in cabs have been in preventing and solving crimes.

If an Uber-type company had come to the city to request it blow up its decades-old regulatory taxi regime to allow competition, it is highly unlikely that request would have gone anywhere.

Instead, an inspector was called to speak to committee last week at the 11th hour on an unofficial basis, leading Community and Protective Services Committee chair Diane Deans to characterize the officer's appearance as "political."

There was also a lot of hot air expelled over how the price of security cameras has fallen over the years, suggesting that requiring a camera wouldn't be an impediment to competition. Yet no one could provide any reasonable estimates of what a modern security-recording system might look like or cost.

That's not how a major public policy change should be debated.

Uber tactics illegal, but effective

In the end, many councillors recognized that services like Uber are a new reality, but didn't like Uber's tactics.

The company had vague-at-best answers to their questions, and not only broke the law over the past 18 months, but plans to continue to do so until the new by-law comes into effect in September. So no doubt, it was a difficult decision for councillors.

Taxi driver disrupts council

7 years ago
Duration 1:06
Ottawa taxi plate owner Tony Hajjar called Uber a "criminal organization" as he stormed out of a council meeting after councillors voted to legalize app-based ride-hailing services, like Uber.
But the fact is, if an Uber-type company had come to the city to request it blow up its decades-old regulatory taxi regime to allow competition, it is highly unlikely that request would have gone anywhere.

For decades, city councils have had zero political will to change the taxi regulatory regime.

Changes to taxi regime didn't come from city hall

And when councillors finally did make one minor positive change — issuing 186 accessible non-tradeable plates over a decade — Watson and some of his council supporters undid that bit of good in 2012 by making those plates tradeable under pressure from the taxi industry.

Why that move was controversial is a long story (and includes the previous CPS chair Coun. Mark Taylor accepting a $750 donation from the taxi union after becoming the industry's regulator), but suffice it to say that decision further ensconced the taxi industry's status quo instead of opening the market.

And giving into the taxi plate owners' demands to make those plates tradeable would have re-enforced the taxi industry's perception that the city was supportive of the tradeable-plate practice.

It's a point that the taxi-plate owners are sure to make should they sue the city for the loss in value of their plates, which they are currently discussing.

Council may have ended at the right decision for the time. But we got here because of the appalling tenacity of a deep-pocketed bandit cab company, and not through the vision of our civic leaders, but rather, in spite of it.


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.