Should Toronto put an end to UberX? The app’s biggest booster and its mortal enemy square off
Uber Canada general manager Ian Black in conversation with Kristine Hubbard, Beck Taxi's operations manager
There’s a lot at stake in the ongoing battle between the city’s taxi industry and Uber, the ride-sharing app that began its conquest of Toronto in 2012. Torontonians take an estimated 1.9 million licensed cab rides every month, and if Uber succeeds in convincing city hall to legalize UberX—its ride-sharing service, which relies on a phalanx of unlicensed semi-pro drivers using their own cars to ferry passengers around—it would be poised to solidify its grip on the business, leaving traditional taxi services to fight over what’s left. Kristine Hubbard, the operations manager of Beck Taxi (and granddaughter of the company’s founder, Jim Beck) has argued that Uber shouldn’t be given that opportunity. Earlier this week, we got her and Uber Canada general manager Ian Black on the phone together for a moderated conversation about their ongoing beef. Here’s what happened.
Q: Kristine, people seem to like UberX. Assuming for the sake of argument that a rider isn’t worried about the legalities, why should he or she choose a taxi?
Hubbard: I think first you want to make sure that people understand the risk they’re taking. Taxis are properly insured, they have drivers who know the streets of our city and have had criminal background checks. For now, a Toronto taxi is the safest way to travel.
Black: We actually think that safety on the Uber platform exceeds that of traditional taxis. Aside from background checks, we are insured, and we have a number of other safety features that go above and beyond. But I think the key things for people are the price, the reliability, and knowing they can get a car when they want one. I think those are key factors that have always been missing in the taxi industry.
Hubbard: I have to respectfully disagree. I know that with Beck Taxi, our average wait time is under five minutes. There’s one taxi for every 500 people in the city of Toronto, as compared to most cities, which have one for every 1,000 or one for every 1,500. Reliability is not an issue that we face in the city of Toronto.
Q: Ian, why do you consider your operation to be safer than taxi service?
Black: Ratings and feedback ensure good behaviour and safe driving. Cashless payments deter crime. The lack of anonymity and GPS tracking that you have on the Uber system further improve safety. We even have a dedicated safety team filled with engineers and safety experts, who are working on ways to make riding with Uber even safer. And all this is not to mention that taxis are far more likely to get in accidents due to aggressive driving and constant scanning of sidewalks for the next fare.
Hubbard: I think it’s important to have feedback and star ratings, which Beck Taxi does provide in our app, as well. I would also say that there is no taxi in the city of Toronto that is used on a 24-hour basis that’s more than 5 years old, whereas the UberX platform requires a vehicle only to be less than 10 years old. And I’d say as well that the vehicle that Beck Taxi is dispatching to riders has its equipment fixed in the vehicle. We’re hearing now—and of course Ian can confirm this or not—that UberX drivers are able to hand their phones to anyone who’s looking to work on any given night. They may or may not be the person who signed up.
Black: If you look back at the number of taxi drivers who are on the road with a criminal history, it’s an enormous number. That’s not true of UberX. Also, all Uber vehicles are inspected. So, I would say the proof is really in the pudding on these things. You can say that there’s all these checks on taxis, you can say that the vehicle quality’s better, but consumers are very clearly voting with their feet and indicating that the experience is better in an Uber.
Q: Ian, in September city council asked Uber to cease operations. Uber refused. Why is that okay?
Black: Well, you know, laws change with the times. It used to be illegal to dance on Sunday. Now, clearly it’s not. Taxis used to be the norm, and now there are new forms of transportation, like ride-sharing. Cities across Canada, including Toronto, are creating new regulations for ride-share. Some cities are even levelling the playing field by finding ways to lighten the regulatory burden on taxi operators, and Uber is broadly supportive of all of these changes.
Hubbard: We can talk about all the things that shouldn’t have been illegal, whether it’s dancing on the sidewalk or something else, but these taxi issues are issues to do with public safety. Dancing, I don’t believe, was ever illegal because it was unsafe. The fact is that right now, Uber is operating illegally. While we’re waiting for rules to change, that doesn’t change the fact that we should operate within the existing rules.
Black: There are almost two million rides per month on the Uber platform in Ontario, and our safety record is very, very strong. So, I think there’s a bit of fearmongering going on here around safety on behalf of the taxi industry. We’re very supportive of regulation, and we’ve been asking for regulations on ride-sharing. And we follow those regulations in over 50 jurisdictions around the world that have already created them.
Q: Speaking of regulations, Kristine, you’ve argued that Uber is a taxi brokerage and should be regulated like one. If, instead, the city decided to deregulate taxis, would that be an equally good way of creating a level playing field?
Hubbard: I don’t think deregulation is the answer. The federal Competition Bureau recently put out a paper that said reducing regulation might be a good idea, but, at the same time, standards for safety must stay intact. The paper also brings up the idea that commercial insurance is a requirement, and that all vehicles for hire should have it. And deregulation, the Competition Bureau is saying very clearly in this report, often results in poorly maintained vehicles and higher prices. So we want to be careful. Deregulation, I’d say, is not in the public’s best interests.
Black: The Competition Bureau report that Kristine brought up was very clear in saying that lower regulatory burdens would lower prices, increase the level of service and make a more reliable system. We think those are good recommendations for the city of Toronto to follow. And lowering the regulatory burden allows for competition. All of this will help not only to make transportation better, but, in the long term, will help work on the big challenges we have with traffic congestion in the city of Toronto.
Q: Ian, UberX drivers don’t have a lot of job security, and they’re reliant upon you to sort out a bunch of legal and regulatory issues that could see them facing big fines, or worse. Why should they trust you to handle all that?
Black: Each of the 20,000-plus drivers in the city of Toronto who earn money on the Uber platform are entrepreneurs. These are people who likely are working a job already and don’t have enough money. Uber allows these people to make good money on their own time. When you compare an UberX driver’s earnings to a taxi driver’s earnings, an UberX driver can make up to three times more per hour. These are people who want to make a better life for themselves, people who like serving the city of Toronto, and we’re working with them to help grow their businesses.
Hubbard: There are thousands of taxi-owning full-time drivers in the city of Toronto. They are actually the true entrepreneurs in this city. Like Ian says, UberX drivers are people who are working for supplementary income. To suggest that they are as committed to offering that service as full-time, true business owners is false. These are people who are often the sole breadwinners in their families, and have driven their taxis in good faith, following the very clearly prescribed rules that the city of Toronto has laid out for them. So, to call UberX drivers partners or entrepreneurs, I think, is a bit of a conflict.
Black: There are certainly taxi drivers who are great entrepreneurs. And there will always be space in the city for different options, whether that be taxis, ride-sharing, car-sharing or others. The fact that we can support an ecosystem that supports both taxis and UberX is good. It doesn’t need to be either/or. We can have an environment where we create more jobs and more opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Q: Kristine, does it have to be either/or? What would you consider to be the ideal outcome of this conflict between Uber and taxis?
Hubbard: I don’t think it is either/or. One reason for that is that there’s no difference between the service that Uber provides and the service that Beck provides. We both connect riders with drivers—it’s just, which drivers are we connecting them to? I think it’s clear that Uber is a taxi service. They used the regulated taxi service to build a client list, and then created their own unregulated service that they’re operating now.
Q: So, to clarify, your ideal outcome is Uber continuing to exist in Toronto, but as a licensed brokerage?
Hubbard: Absolutely. Again, we’re doing the same job that Uber does. We’re connecting riders with drivers. And whatever rules we follow, I would suggest that Uber follow them too.
Black: Our ideal outcome is a set of rules for ride-sharing that allow for public safety and for continued innovation. We would also support the lowering of the regulations on taxis, so that taxis feel they can compete. We also see our base of drivers and vehicles being used for food deliveries and parcel deliveries. It’s clear that ride-sharing is very different than a traditional taxi brokerage, and we need flexible regulations that allow for that innovation.
Hubbard: To suggest again that they’re doing something different—I have to respectfully disagree. We have been delivering food parcels and offering van and cargo service for many, many years. Again, it’s not ride-sharing; it’s taxi service. Plus, not everyone in our city has access to a smartphone, and not everyone has a credit card that they can attach to an app. We have to make sure that we’re there for our seniors.
Black: I’m glad to see Kristine and I agree on so many things here. We couldn’t agree more that the services Beck provides and the services that Uber provides are somewhat different. And that’s okay. Choice for consumers should be encouraged. But the point on serving everyone in the city is a great one. Uber is a new company. We’re adding services all the time. Working with drivers who can take elderly customers door to door, who can take customers in wheelchairs door to door—these are services that we’re starting to offer. And good regulations can encourage that sort of innovation.
Q: Before we go, would either of you want to pay a compliment to the other?
Black: Of course. Beck is one of the largest taxi companies in North America. And I think they’ve done a very good job of building a large customer base and serving that customer base over the long-term. It’s something that we aspire to have—that long-term relationship with the city.
Hubbard: And I’d say that Ian and the Uber team have brought the taxi industry to the forefront. We’re having important discussions that we’ve been trying to have for many, many years. I think that a lot of very good points have been brought up in terms of doing a better job providing service to the city. That has come about because of the conversation that’s been started by Ian and Uber.