The Tyranny of Taxis

I have written before (multiple times, in fact) on the ridiculous nature of Ottawa’s taxi market. It’s a cartel system. Existing providers have a protected market in which possible competitors are blocked from entry. Taxi plates, purchased from the city for purported purpose of driving a taxi, are bought, sold and rented on a grey market. Prices for plates on this market are incredibly expensive, allowing plate holders to get rich off of, essentially, a public entitlement. It’s rent-seeking at its most egregious…and the city has not shown sufficient nerve to deal with it.

Today, it wasn’t the customers or would-be competitors who were decrying this pseudo-monopoly; the plate holders are now upset:

The president of the local taxi union says gas prices and insurance fees are “out of control” and Ottawa cabbies are looking to increase their fares by seven per cent.

Ontario Taxi Union Local 1688 president Amrik Singh says that Ottawa cab drivers pay about $8,000 per year for insurance – and ‘one little fender bender’ will cost them an additional $300 per month. And he can’t bear to watch gas prices go up any more than they already have.

“You don’t even want to look at the gas station when you pass by,” Singh told Metro Tuesday.

It is easy to see how rising costs but price caps will put the squeeze on drivers. One driver noted that with gas, insurance and “company fees”, his costs are approximately $12,000 per year. That is quite a burden, and I certainly have a lot of sympathy for an individual trying to make a living during trying times.

But I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the industry as a whole. Drivers may be getting squeezed by companies and gas prices. There is a measure of unfairness in the government freezing prices for a (non-essential) service, but the industry regularly fights to ensure they retain their industry’s protection from the government. It’s not really the place of industry participants to claim to be the wronged party in this scenario.

If you lobby the government to meddle in your business, it’s partially your fault when the government meddles in your business.

The Self-Destruction of Sparks Street

It’s really hard to figure out Sparks Street Mall. It should be a downtown treasure, a part of Ottawa’s heritage, but it never seems to get there. There are more and more events and activities going on these days (Ribfest, Buskers Festival, Poutinefest…), but whenever the mall seems to making some progress, those running the show do something really stupid.

Take, for instance, their Farmer’s Market. This sort of thing is all the rage, and one can hardly blame Sparks Street for hopping on the trend. Apparently, it was quite successful. Apparently, it was too successful, leading to it getting shut down, as local business Art-is-in Bakery tweeted this morning:

The bricks-and-mortar stores weren’t happy, and so the Sparks Street BIA shut these vendors down. This is just the most recent curious decision. The BIA has worked to undercut the pedestrian mall for a few years. More and more, you will see trucks and cars driving along—and parking on—the pedestrian mall. This shot appeared on Twitter today:

It’s clear that the BIA cares little about residents, but the question becomes, why are they so powerful? The BIA seems to be calling all the shots. They function as the management group for Sparks Street. Public Works and the NCC have appropriated just about all the buildings along Sparks Street and—according to Wikipedia—the NCC appropriated the Sparks Street Mall, itself. The NCC, however, claims no ownership over Sparks Street, claiming it’s just any old city street:

Of course, there is probably some slight-of-tweet going in in that statement. The NCC refers to Sparks Street, but, of course, the issues are with Sparks Street Mall. The NCC and PWGSC hold significant sway over the Mall (as the landlords of all the buildings). The BIA is a shadowy organization (with a horrible social media presence). It has a limited web presence of its own, and mostly hides behind the Sparks Street brand.

The BIA is, of course, a special interest that primarily represents the interests of the businesses on parks Street. They are not, primarily, a representative of either the city or residents. As noted on the city’s website:

BIAs come into existence when local business and property owners join together to improve, promote and undertake projects that will result in a stronger and more competitive commercial main street or business district. With the City’s support, they organize, finance and complete local improvements and promotional events from their common location within a defined commercial area.

So what we are left with is a special interest group that has been given a lot of control over public space. Is there anywhere else in the city where a special interest group gets to—officially—control a public street? And make no mistake, this is a street. It does not matter if there are no cars (even though there are) on this pedestrian street, it is still, in its essence, a public street.

There is a simple solution. The city needs to exert more control over Sparks Street. Since it falls under city control—assuming that neither the NCC, Heritage Canada nor PWGSC will interfere—we should be able to. We shouldn’t be bullied and abused by a small group of self-important, entitled businesses.