Taxis, politics and the time for Jim Watson to fight

Ottawa’s taxi disputes are ramping up. The cabbies’ union, Unifor, are fighting battles on multiple fronts, while trying to maintain cohesion between multiple factions within the taxi union. Cabbies are “taking” fares* from each other. Some drivers are calling others scabs. And drivers are attacking each other. During all this infighting, the union still has a labour dispute with Coventry Connections (or is the airport authority? or the city? or the mayor? The messaging isn’t particularly coherent), and they’re still going after Uber.

This week, though, they’ve stepped things up. Unifor honcho Jerry Dias led a demonstration against Uber downtown yesterday. He seems displeased with Mayor Watson’s actions on the matter, and threatens that cabbies will “take back City Hall” if they don’t get what they want. It’s the petulant whining of a rent-seeking cartel when faced with the fact that their favoured status can’t continue forever. It’s also absolutely ridiculous.

Jim Watson has been many things during his most recent tenure as mayor, but hostile to the taxi cartel, he is not. He has repeatedly defended their privileged status and lashed out against Uber. It is only when some of the cabbies have revealed their true nature through repeated acts of violence and unreasonable demands of the city that the shine has come off the official relationship between Watson and the taxi drivers.

Further, this and last council has been especially protective of the taxi status quo. Current deputy mayor found himself in a bit of controversy a few years ago. As The Citizen‘s Joanne Chianello wrote:

At the time, council fought to make those plates non-tradeable, arguing that it was the first, albeit minuscule, step to one day phasing out those tradeable plates. The city would steadily, if slowly, issue new, non-tradable plates over the years and eventually the tradeable plates would lose their value.

Except that in 2012, Coun. Mark Taylor — with the full support of Watson, but not of veteran councillors — moved to make these newer plates tradeable. It’s worth noting that the city’s taxi union gave Taylor a $750 campaign donation after he became chair of the committee that presides over the city’s taxi bylaw. (Taylor has called taking the donation “a rookie mistake” during this campaign season.)

Now, there’s nothing to say that Taylor was on the take. I fully believe that he wasn’t. This seems a situation of people who are inclined to collaborate collaborating. But even if money doesn’t buy council, it does buy access; it is a manifestation of power and power coalesces. A politician doesn’t have to be dirty to be corrupted, and money has a tendency to corrupt.

So if the union is looking for a taxi cartel-friendly council, there’s no reason to think they don’t already have it. At least for now.

One of the mayor’s faults is his inability to take criticism (it’s a fault that most of us share, to one degree or another). A critique of a city initiative is taken as an attack on the city and council and him. The reaction is (to borrow a word from the opening paragraphs) petulant.

But you know what, it’s time for this flaw to finally do some good for the city. Mayor Watson, the taxi union is calling you out. They’re lying about you. They’re threatening you. You would not suffer such an offensive from anyone else; it’s time to stick up for the city and end the power of the taxi cartel.

Council has a taxi review going on. It’ll be useful to hear the results and determine how to transition out of the current messed up system, but, Mr. Mayor, here’s what needs to happen:

  • Uber is here to stay (until a new competitor comes in and knocks them off their perch). Embrace it. It’s a dispatch service that works and that your citizens seem to love.
  • Get rid of the plate system. I know some cabbies have put a lot of money into their plates, and that’s rough, but the city can’t protect everyone from poor business decisions. Uber has been around for a year, now. Notify cabbies that existing Uber drivers are allowed to keep operating and give the cabbies about six months before we take all limits off the number of taxis, Ubers or whatever are on the road. Anyone who wants to be a cabbie, can…in six months. This gives plate holders close to two years from the introduction of Uber into the Ottawa market to wring whatever inflated profits they can out of their black market plates.
  • License all cabbies, using an expansive definition. This means that all Uber drivers have to have the proper safety checks and emissions tests completed (and don’t give any driver or company a lower standard than the rest of us; if anything, give them a higher standard). Drivers need to be cleared for safety and must have proper insurance.
  • Get out of the pricing game. Cabbies can charge what they want or need.
  • Get rid of airport plates.
  • Have the airport sell access to individual drivers or on a per-fare basis. No more friggin’ cartels. At all. Ensure the airport understands that they rely on the benevolence of the city to operate.
  • Get protests off the Airport Parkway. Job action is valid. That’s not what that was.
  • Run more buses to the airport and give all priority to transit.
  • Get LRT out to the airport.

(We shouldn’t expand the Airport Parkway, either, but that’s a different discussion.)

Mr. Watson, this is your challenge. You need drag us into a modern and thoughtful transit system. Unifor threw down the glove. Make them regret it.

 

*The use of the terms “fares” instead of customers is pretty revealing, no?

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