Ottawa

Uber, pandemic, now gas prices: the hits keep coming for Ottawa's taxi industry

Taxi drivers in Ottawa are worried the industry may die after taking multiple blows over many years. Hit hard by low-ridership during the pandemic, people hoping to drive cabs are now looking at soaring gas prices and a backlog of dispatch fees, in addition to having to share the streets with ride-hailing companies.

Drivers say they can't take much more

Coventry Connections, the company that runs many of the major taxi brands in the city and taxi union are applying to the City of Ottawa for a rate hike to offset costs. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Taxi drivers in Ottawa are worried the industry may die after experiencing multiple blows over many years.

"The pandemic, it just put the last nail in the coffin of the taxi industry," said Latif Dadshani, who has been driving a cab since 1990. 

Hit hard by low-ridership during the pandemic, people hoping to drive cabs are now looking at soaring gas prices and a backlog of licensing fees, in addition to having to share the streets with ride-hailing companies. 

"I don't know what's going to happen to us," Dadshani said.

He usually rents the two taxi plates he owns, although now he is having trouble finding anyone willing. Taxi plates issued by the City of Ottawa have become less valuable in recent years. 

Numbers from the city show the total licensed drivers went from 1,950 in the year 2019 to 1,125 in 2021. In 2014, there were 2,776 drivers. 

It's been a tough road, Dadshani said, since the bylaw was changed in 2016 to allow for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. 

"It was just like putting my hand behind my back-tied in a boxing ring," he said.

Drivers with no where else to go

Not all of those licence owners are necessarily driving, according to the drivers' union. It said their membership shows a decline of drivers actually on the road — before the bylaw allowed ride-hailing, there were more than 1,500, now they have about 700.

Latif Dadshani says the value of his taxi plates is all but lost. (Buntola Nou/CBC )

Dadshani said allowing for unlimited trips on a ride-hailing app diminished the value of taxi plates — something you used to be able to retire on. 

He has not sold his plates, but said before ride hailing, plates would sell for $350,000 or more; after it was around $50,000, now it's about $8,000. 

He said it takes a toll on drivers that don't have many other options. 

"The age of the drivers, because of the lack of any other experience they are out of luck," he said.

"Most of the taxi drivers are immigrants. They have a big family and you know, it's having negative consequences socially, economically."

The taxi industry has filed a class action lawsuit against the city for allowing the ride-hailing companies, which is set to go to court in April. Quebec provided compensation to drivers after it deregulated the industry in 2019. 

Rising costs prohibitive

The cost to drive a cab also concerns some drivers. During the pandemic Coventry Connections, the company that runs Blueline, WestWay and Capital continued to charge the dispatch fee.

It runs upwards of $500 a month, meaning some had to pay thousands of dollars to return to work. Abulhamid Hussein ended up paying $3,731 for the months he was off. He also said he could no longer find a second driver for his accessible van, so was stuck with less income too.

"We are stuck in the prison," he said.

Coventry owner Marc André Way said they gave a break on the fees for a few weeks at the start of the pandemic, but they had to keep afloat. 

"You're leasing a space under that roof sign. And if you don't want to lose your space, you have to pay something," Way said.

The union and the company reached a deal through arbitration to discount those fees. 

"I had to keep the lights on…we were charging rent to make sure that when all this ended, they still had a place to come to work."

Coventry Connections CEO Marc André Way says the company has lost a lot during the pandemic. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Still Hussein, who isn't driving currently because he says a ticket in Quebec is preventing him from getting insured, says the large dispatch fee, plus insurance fees of $850 a month aren't helping drivers get back on their feet. And now there's an added pinch — gas prices are skyrocking.

"Nobody wants to pay 1,400 every single month…compared to Uber, it is very hard."

He said drivers still had to renew their licence with the city during the pandemic, although the city has deferred payments by six months every year since 2020.

Company says industry turning around

Way is optimistic that the industry is coming back, he says some drivers are returning — as are customers. 

"It's changing, but it's not dying," he said.

"I can tell you that we see a trend where customers are coming back to us because we're cheaper now than the ride sharing [companies] are, we're more reliable. We have someone at the other end of the phone that can say: 'yeah we'll help you.'"

Earlier this year, the company along with the drivers' union asked the city for a rate increase of at least 10 per cent with to start in June. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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