Taxi advocates air grievances as Saskatoon inches toward Uber

Taxi licence holders and drivers say Saskatoon should make Uber and Lyft drivers play by the same rules they must follow.

'The consequences for the existing taxi industry have been devastating and detrimental,' says licence owner

Comfort Cabs recently merged with the United Group, as both taxi companies in Saskatoon await competition from ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. (Saskatchewan Taxi Cab Association/Facebook)

Fearing Lyft and Uber will wipe out their business, taxi drivers, labour advocates and company owners urged the City of Saskatoon to make ride-hailing drivers play by the same rules at a special meeting of the city's standing committee on transportation on Tuesday.

The province officially opened the door for services like Uber and Lyft late last month with the passage of the Vehicles For Hire Act, which outlines how such ride-hailing companies will be allowed to operate.

A number of the people who spoke to the committee on Tuesday said they've spent their life savings buying one of Saskatoon's 165 permanent taxi licences, which have traded for more than $250,000 each in private sales.

"The potential consequences of an uneven playing field are very real," said Carlo Triolo, the general manager of United and Comfort Cabs. 

He criticized city administrators for not consulting taxi advocates before writing a detailed report on potential regulations for transportation network companies (TNCs).

That report recommended the City of Saskatoon:

  • Require ride-hailing drivers to display dispatcher and city contact information, along with the driver's licence and the posted fare in a smartphone application.
  • Require companies such as Lyft or Uber to run criminal record checks on their drivers.
  • Allow ride-hailing vehicles to be up to 10 years old (taxis currently may be no more than seven years old).
  • Prohibit ride-hailing cars from stopping at taxi stands, and forbid passengers from hailing Lyft or Uber rides on the street.
  • Make ride-hailing company decals mandatory, and require TNCs to report trip statistics to the city periodically.
  • Require TNCs to carry business licences and municipal licenses, and periodically pay a per-trip fee, although individual drivers would not have to buy municipal business licences.
  • Surge pricing would be allowed for TNCs, as long as the price is posted beforehand via the company's smartphone app.
  • Set no cap on the number of ride-hailing drivers.
  • Set a minimum fare of $3.10 for ride-hailing trips, while taxis charge $3.75.
  • Not require ride-hailing drivers to install in-car cameras, while taxis must carry them.
'We don't have enough taxis,' Mubarik Syed told city councillors, noting he's already purchased several Saskatoon taxi permits. 'If you're giving me the choice, I don't want transportation network companies.' (CBC)

Mubarik Syed, who owns several taxi licences in Saskatoon, told Saskatoon's standing committee he has friends driving taxis in New York City and Toronto who have lost their life savings after Uber's arrival.

"Drivers would lose a major portion of their livelihood," said Syed. "The consequences for the existing taxi industry have been devastating and detrimental."

He said rather than "lowering the standards" by allowing ride-hailing, Saskatoon should issue more taxi licences on at least a part-time basis.

"If you don't have a smartphone, you can't access [Uber's] service. If you don't have a credit card, you can't access their service," Syed said.

"Half the population the taxi industry's been serving for so many years, they don't have both those options."

Ride-hailing business differs from taxis: Uber

"Level and fair doesn't have to mean exactly the same," said Michael van Hemmen, a manager with Uber Canada, who said the businesses are "100 per cent different."

"In the same way that limo is different from taxi, which is different from carpool and ride-sharing — each model has slight nuances about how the business goes about doing business," said van Hemmen.

'I think what we're seeing is a lot of excitement actually,' said Uber Canada's Michael van Hemmen. 'We've seen that 80 per cent of Saskatchewan residents want ride-sharing.' (CBC)

He said Uber does not like charging a minimum fare, but "would accept" the $3.10 suggested by city officials.

He said Uber Canada relies on the Canadian Police Information Centre records held by the RCMP to screen its "partners" and that Uber's app also includes numerous security features that allow passengers to report bad trips, or to speak with a telephone operator.

"You see who your driver is in advance of them coming to pick you up," he said, noting passengers see their driver's photo along with a vehicle's make, model and licence plate number in Uber's app.

Van Hemmen told committee members Uber drivers do not congest roads, as their rush-hour is more likely to be when bars close in the early morning hours.

"We look forward to competing on price, customer experience and customer service," he said.

After four hours of hearing concerns, members of Saskatoon's standing committee on transportation opted to hold another special meeting on Wednesday, June 27 at noon, to decide what regulations they'll recommend to council next month.