Uber won't slow down to await legalization, Ottawa committee told

Cameras in Uber cars were a main point of contention as nearly 100 people signed up to weigh in on the City of Ottawa's plan to legalize app-based ride-hailing services at a special committee meeting on Thursday.

Security cameras one focus of lengthy Thursday committee meeting on regulation plan

Council chamber was packed for a special meeting on proposed changes to taxi regulations. Dozens of taxi drivers and other interested parties listened in from nearby Jean Pigott Hall. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Security cameras were a main point of contention at a lengthy committee meeting Thursday as nearly 100 people signed up to weigh in on the City of Ottawa's plan to legalize app-based ride-hailing services like Uber.

The taxi industry is pushing for Uber to join them in having cameras in their vehicles, but Uber Canada is resisting the move and said it will not commit to suspending operations in Ottawa pending legalization of the service.

Uber Canada's Chris Schafer, the first person signed up to speak before Thursday's special meeting of the community and protective services committee, said the service is "operating in good faith" in jurisdictions across the world as new regulations are formulated.

Schafer did not give a definitive answer on suspending services, however.

Uber Canada's Chris Schafer answers questions before a committee and packed council chambers. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

"So, the short answer is no," said Coun. Keith Egli.

"We look forward to operating in a regulated environment," Schafer replied.

Last week, the City of Ottawa unveiled a plan to legalize app-based ride-hailing services, such as Uber, at the end of a lengthy taxi bylaw review. 

Councillors on the community and protective services committee are hearing from people on various sides of the issue before debating the recommendations, which include reducing fees for traditional taxi drivers and introducing regulations for ride-hailing services.

The plan, backed by Uber, would require all vehicles for hire to have a minimum $5 million of liability insurance, and all drivers to undergo a police check and provide copies of their driving records.

But leaders in Ottawa's taxi industry have argued the city's plan would create a two-tiered system due to differences in fare models, varying overhead costs and the fact that cameras would still be required in taxis — but not in Ubers.

Yesterday, the taxi industry issued a list of nine demands to be considered by the city as it moves to change taxi regulations. One demand was that Uber cease operations in Ottawa immediately "until new Ontario provincial legislation for greater enforcement powers to Ontario cities is introduced and authorized into law."

Camera debate

For nearly three hours, Schafer was grilled by councillors about cameras in vehicles, driver training, accessibility standards and surge pricing — an increase in fares when demand is high. Many councillors brought up the fact that Uber was currently skirting the law by operating illegally.

Courtney Francis, the head of taxi booking service ZipTrack, was one of several who told the committee that cameras should be mandatory for all vehicles.

Francis said that the taxi industry has helped police in five of the city's six homicides so far this year — but he didn't explain exactly how.

Asked about cameras by several councillors, Schafer argued that cameras are meant to keep drivers safe because they're picking up unknown customers and accepting cash payments.

Uber drivers and their passengers have access to information about each other prior to pickup through their profiles on the app, and payments are exclusively done via credit card through the app, which Schafer said eliminates the need for cameras.

Schafer also said that half of Uber drivers work 10 hours a week, and that requiring cameras would be prohibitively expensive.

He added that a city-commission report, done by the consulting firm KPMG, did not recommend cameras in ride-hailing services such as Uber.

Training and surge pricing

Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs the committee, said last week the plan is "taking the handcuffs off" the taxi industry while also responding to the public's demand for "greater choice in their transportation options."

Mayor Jim Watson has also said he backs the plan. 

The city has recommended scrapping mandatory training for taxi drivers — but the taxi industry wants to keep it and force Uber drivers to be professionally trained as well.

Uber Canada has argued that its rating system, combined with "real-time feedback" from passengers, is a system that works — and that the volume of Uber users in Ottawa is an endorsement of its customer service.

Several councillors also asked questions about surge pricing, part of the Uber pricing model that taxi drivers have described as unfair as their fares are capped by a meter.

Schafer told the committee that surge pricing comes into effect when supply and demand is "out of whack," and that it's determined by an algorithm — not drivers.

He said it's unlikely Uber would share their algorithm with the City of Ottawa due to proprietary issues. 

About 15 to 20 per cent of Uber trips are subject to a surge, said Schafer, and most surge situations are still cheaper than traditional taxis. 

Users are warned about surge pricing before the ride is confirmed, given fare estimates and asked to double confirm if the surge is more than two times the regular price, he said.

Meeting could continue into weekend

Accessibility concerns have also been raised, as Uber doesn't currently have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in Ottawa. 

City recommendations include petitioning the province for authority to create a mandatory accessibility levy for Uber and other services like it. 

Schafer said Uber would be willing to voluntarily pay an accessibility fee — even without being ordered to by the province.

Brian Wade, chair of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, said companies like Uber should have 15 per cent of vehicles be accessible, if not pay a levy.

Bob Brown from the Council of Canadians with Disabilities also urged the committee to emphasize accessibility moving forward.

Others who addressed the committee included head of the Ottawa taxi union Amrik Singh, Marc Andre Way, co-owner of Capital Taxi and head of the Canadian Taxi Association, the assistant to the president of Unifor, Bob Orr, as well as drivers working for both Uber and traditional cab companies.

As the meeting dragged on for 11 hours, people signed up to speak left the meeting, and in the end 50 people addressed the committee.

If approved by the committee, the recommendations will head to council for review and final approval on April 13.

The city's initial plan was to have new regulations come into effect as early as June 30, if given the green light by council. But a new motion proposes Sept. 30 as the new implementation date to give more time to adjust.

See a recap of our blog here.