City committee clears road for Uber in Ottawa

Uber — and app-based ride-hailing services like it — are a major step closer to operating legally in Ottawa after a city committee approved a raft of recommendations aimed at reforming the taxi industry on Friday.

No security cameras in Uber cars, councillors decide

Taxi drivers and plate owners watched as the city committee approved changes to the city's bylaws to allow for companies like Uber to operate legally. (CBC)

Uber — and app-based ride-hailing services like it — are a major step closer to operating legally in Ottawa after a city committee approved a raft of recommendations aimed at reforming the taxi industry on Friday.

The vote followed two days and about 18 hours of debate and public delegations, during which councillors on the community and protective services committee heard from dozens of representatives on both sides of the debate.

The report needs the final approval of city council, and its recommendations are subject to further revision at the April 13 meeting.

We will not allow anybody to beat us and then tell us don't cry.- taxi union head Amrik Singh.

But taxi drivers left the meeting fuming, especially after the committee shot down a motion demanding Uber and ride-hailing services like it be equipped with security cameras.

Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs the committee, warned the audience not to be disruptive as murmurs of dissent rippled through the room following the 7-3 vote against the motion.

"You're disrupting our lives!" one man shouted back.

Amrik Singh, the president of the taxi union, said drivers were meeting Friday night to consider their next action.

"What do I do now? Anything in my power. Anything which is under my legal rights," said Singh.

"We will not allow anybody to beat us and then tell us don't cry."

'Should taxis even be around anymore?' Coventry head asks

Hanif Patni, the president of Coventry Connections called the decision "disheartening" and said the taxi industry has been treated in "a terrible way."

Many taxi drivers walked out on the committee meeting after a motion to require Uber vehicles to have security cameras was defeated. (CBC)
Patni said his company "absolutely" has to consider whether it should reconfigure as a "private taxi company," or PTC, the new category for companies like Uber.

"We have to ask ourselves, 'Should taxis even be around any more?'" he said.

The city's recommendations, which include reducing fees for traditional taxi drivers and introducing regulations for ride-hailing services, were released last week at the end of a lengthy taxi bylaw review prompted by the launch of Uber in Ottawa in October 2014.

City staff also recommended that all vehicles for hire have a minimum $5 million of liability insurance, and all drivers to undergo a police check and provide copies of their driving records. 

Security cameras a divisive issue

Before approving the report, the committee considered a number of motions from councillors, but none was a bigger sticking point for the taxi industry than the one demanding security cameras be on ride-hailing vehicles.

Security cameras have been mandatory in Ottawa taxis since 2008.

Coun. Rick Chiarelli — along with Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, who is not on the committee — introduced the motion, arguing they hold drivers and passengers accountable and help solve crimes. 

Ottawa Police Insp. John Maxwell told the committee footage from taxi security cameras has helped solve homicides and robberies. The number of times footage has been downloaded as evidence has grown over the years from 20 times in 2010 to 39 times in 2015, he said.

Uber Canada's Chris Schafer had told the committee Thursday that cameras are meant to protect drivers who pick up unknown passengers and offer the option of cash payments. Since neither of situations arise for Uber drivers, he argued cameras were unnecessary.

'The public demanded change'

The committee meeting Friday followed a marathon 11-hour meeting on Thursday that heard from 50 people — including from Uber Canada, leaders in Ottawa's taxi industry, and taxi and Uber drivers.

Deans said at the outset of the meeting Friday that the city can't use regulations to keep competition out of Ottawa in the taxi industry.

"It is clear the taxi industry needs to change. Change is never easy. The industry needs fewer regulations and more competition," Deans said. "The public demanded change. The public demanded greater choice. The public is counting on us to get this right."

Several councillors on the committee emphasized that Uber has been operating illegally in Ottawa — and continues to do so — even as the city works to legalize the service.

Start of new regulations pushed to September

A number of motions put forward and debated on Friday sought to address how the city might enforce the new rules

Among the motions approved were:

  • To change the implementation date of the new regulations from the city's proposed June 30 start to September 30.
  • That, in order to ensure compliance, Uber provide "an up-to-date list of all driver information including name, address, confirmation of insurance coverage, confirmation of police records check, appropriate driving record and make, model and year of vehicle and license plate information."
  • That staff report back to council with a compliance report every six months in the first year of the new regulations and on an annual basis thereafter.
  • That the city notify the CRA of its intention to create a new category of vehicles for hire to allow Uber and services like it to operate in Ottawa.
  • To create a committee to review accessibility requirements.
  • To increase the proposed per-trip charge — in addition to an annual licensing fee — for Uber-like services to be a round $0.11 rather than the city's proposal of $0.105.

The committee also rejected a motion to "modernize" the Algonquin College driver training course and require all drivers — including Uber drivers — to take it.

With files from Joanne Chianello