From Thornton Blackburn to Uber: a brief and varied history of Toronto taxis

Whenever Toronto's taxi industry has faced reform, an intense debate has ensued, beginning with the great Thornton Blackburn, the city's first taxi operator.

The Underground Railroad delivered the first taxi entrepreneur to Toronto

A wrecked De Luxe cab in 1926. It had been in a collision at Harbord and Bathurst, possibly due to speeding. (City of Toronto Archives)

In the annals of messy commutes, Thornton Blackburn had one of the messiest.

To get from his home at Eastern Avenue and Sumach Street to his work as a waiter at Osgoode Hall, he had to wade through flowing mud and, on occasion, raw sewage along King Street.

Adding to his miserable daily journey, Blackburn could only watch as vehicles passed him by, carrying wealthy travellers who could afford to ride comfortably and muck-free in carriages.

This was in 1834, when Toronto wasn't even Toronto yet. It was called York, and because the streets were so clogged with mud its nickname was Muddy York. A few years after he arrived in the city, in 1837, Blackburn started what would become Toronto's first taxi service, called The City.

Just like today, disrupting the transportation routines was not without controversy. Blackburn existed in a sort of legal limbo, despite being popular with the citizens of York. His service flourished anyway, and Blackburn became wealthy as many others began taxi services after him.

The story of Thornton Blackburn — truly one of the great Torontonians — may not have direct parallels to Uber, the ride-hailing app that's caused seemingly endless controversy in Toronto, but it kicks off a centuries-long debate over who can drive a cab in this city.

From slavery to The City, 1833-1837

The most controversial aspect of Blackburn in York, at the time, was his status as an Upper Canadian. He had entered the city as an escaped slave, a story told in 2007's I've Got a Home in Glory Land; A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, by Karolyn Smardz Frost.

On July 3, 1831, just a day before American Independence Day, he and his wife, Lucie, fled Louisville, Ky., where they were black slaves to white owners. They went through the famed Underground Railroad to Detroit, where they thought they would settle into new, free lives.

Instead they were arrested as fugitives.

Uproar from Detroit's emerging black populace and other anti-slavery citizens helped break them free. Lucie was smuggled out of prison when she swapped outfits with a visitor, and she snuck into Ontario. Blackburn followed, leaving behind the social unrest now known as the Blackburn Riots of 1833, the first race riot in Detroit.

Throughout their first years in Upper Canada, where slavery was being phased out but still existed, it was unclear whether the couple would be extradited back to the U.S., as the governor of Michigan repeatedly demanded.

Under that cloud, Blackburn began his King Street taxi service. He copied the idea of taxis from Montreal.
A view of Thornton Blackburn's horse-drawn cab going down a Toronto street in the centre of this mid-19th-century painting by John Gillespie. (Canadian Department, Royal Ontario Museum)

Although he was never educated, nor learned to read, he became wealthy by offering low-cost means for Upper Canadians to get around. Thanks to Blackburn, almost any Upper Canadian could travel above the mud.

The Toronto Telegram, one of the newspapers at the time, hailed his company with the headline "The First Cab in the City" in 1888. Blackburn had a monopoly on taxis for a few years, until others saw the economic profits from running them. Another early cabman in Toronto was Joseph Hazelton, believed to be the man who gave Hazelton Avenue in Yorkville its name.

Despite being a successful businessman, and friend of other notable Torontonians like George Brown, Blackburn still faced discrimination, dismissed as "coloured" and not permitted to vote.

Public transit takes over, 1849-1921

Blackburn began his taxi service by constructing a four-person, horse-drawn carriage that he painted yellow and red.

In 1849, nearly 15 years after The City was up and running, a cabinetmaker named Burt Williams began a six-person carriage that went from St. Lawrence Market to the Red Lion Hotel in Yorkville. Despite being considered the origins of public transit, Williams innovations were privately run, and explicitly for-profit.

In fact, transit in Toronto remained a private enterprise until 1891, when the city stepped in. It ordered Toronto Street Railway Company to hand over operations of transit to the municipal government.

Protests ensued, which will sound familiar to anyone paying attention to taxi driver protests against Uber: The Toronto Street Railway Company pulled all its vehicles off the streets for nearly two weeks.

The influence of Blackburn's cabs could still be seen, as the colours of his vehicles, yellow and red, would eventually be adopted by the city's public transit system, and eventually appeared on TTC vehicles after 1921.

The re-emergence of Toronto taxis, 1909-1929

Cab rates, arranged by the number of horses that drew a carriage, in 1857. (City of Toronto Archives)

The advent of streetcars in the city blunted the need for taxis for much of the early part of the 20th century — a cab ride in 1919 could cost as much as a dollar, while streetcars were around six cents.

So Toronto cabs were again a luxury for the wealthy. The unregulated taxi industry thrived on business travellers, setting up strategic taxi stands at transportation hubs like Union Station.

Along with their passengers at the time, taxi companies were increasingly closed shops. The cost of running a cab company was extensive, and so new entrants to the industry were rare. The first motorized cab came to Toronto in 1909, Berna Motor and Taxicabs, Ltd., and could be ordered by phone from their garage at Adelaide and Victoria Streets.

De Luxe Cabs Ltd. had 175 metered cabs when it began operating in 1926, as Donald F. Davis described in Urban History Review. It had 75 telephones attached to poles or walls where drivers waited for assignment from dispatchers. Drivers would wait around in cafes and gas stations to get calls for rides. The dispatch centre was a competitive advantage.

De Luxe offered five passengers per car a ride that was "void of exterior advertising and glaring insignia," in other words, what a Torontonian might experience on a streetcar, as seen in the book From Horse Power to Horsepower: Toronto: 1890-1930 by Mike Filey.

To match De Luxe's business operations would be prohibitively expensive, and few dared to try it.

A profession for the unemployed, 1929-1933

During the Great Depression, Toronto's taxi companies fell on hard times, going from more than 200 operating taxis to around 50. But that period, from 1929 to 1933, proved to be an equalizer for transportation. Taxi customers were few and far between, and the monopolies that ruled the streets were weakened.

As it turned out, the depression proved to be a boost for the many unemployed Torontonians who turned their private vehicles into taxis. The industry flourished, and became steeply competitive for the first time since Blackburn's days.

With so many new cab drivers, fares plummeted. Each cab would viciously compete for the lowest fare.

The early 1930s were a contentious time in Toronto taxi history. Many complained that too many taxis - often operated by those left unemployed by the Great Depression - clogged up the streets. This photo from the Toronto Archives illustrates the frustration. (City of Toronto Archives)

The taxi wars, 1925-1950

Across Canada, taxi companies lobbied local governments — who up until that point were laissez-faire on the matter — to regulate fares.

Taxi companies were not the only ones to be involved in the public discourse. A scan of the stakeholders in the industry shows opinion on how to regulate taxis was as divided as it is today:

  • Transit companies across the country saw taxis as competition to their booming services, and argued for taxis to be municipally run public services.
  • Police services also got into the debate, accusing taxi operators of facilitating bootlegging and prostitution.
  • Newspapers decried the number of taxis clogging up the city streets and causing undue congestion.
  • Insurers set prohibitive rates for taxis, noting that they caused a disproportionate number of collisions and frequently sped through the streets.

The debate was so intense, Toronto set up an advisory committee in 1931 to study the issue. Toronto's Advisory Committee on Taxicabs was the first in a line of municipal regulation on the taxi industry.

In 1949, the end of the taxi wars, De Luxe and nine other taxi companies joined forces to become a powerful, united industry force under the name Diamond Taxi Cab Association.

De Luxe taxis lined up with their uniformed drivers next to them in Toronto in 1926. Most of the business came through telephone orders, and De Luxe set up phone stations all over the city. It was hard to compete with such an extensive operation. (Toronto Archives)

Taxi licensing comes to Toronto, 1964-1998

Soon after the taxi industry consolidated, licenses came into effect, starting with the Standard Taxicab Owner Licences (sic) in 1963. In 1974, regulation passed to allow drivers to operate taxis in vehicles they don't own.

Even more regulations governing who can drive a cab came in 1998, when different classes of licenses were created. Fees for those licenses, offered to existing Standard Licence holders for $75,000 in 1998, have since quadrupled.

Today's debate around taxis has its origins in San Francisco, when in March, 2009, two entrepreneurs, named Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, created Uber. The ride-hailing service is currently in 403 cities. When it arrived in Toronto in 2011, once again the city began to reform laws around taxi cabs.

At each turn of Toronto's taxi history, from Blackburn to Uber, the question has remained the same: who gets to drive a taxi, and at what cost. Even if the latest regulations pass, that debate appears destined to continue.