Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto’s Uber debate should be about urban mobility — it’s not

The taxi-Uber argument in Toronto has led to protests like these that have clogged city streets and led to anything but better mobility.
The taxi-Uber argument in Toronto has led to protests like these that have clogged city streets and led to anything but better mobility.

It was painful to watch.

For two full days last week, city hall’s licensing and standards committee debated new regulations for ground transportation providers – taxis, Uber, and the like.

With all the yelling, I feared it might never end. It seemed possible that, millennia from now, as Galactus prepares to chow down on our planet, some city councillors might still be in a room somewhere, trying to figure out insurance requirements for UberX.

But it did end, eventually, though nothing much was accomplished. Committee members amended the report recommendations, but final decisions won’t come until the full Toronto City Council votes on the regulations in May.

For me, the biggest frustration with these taxi and Uber arguments is that they’ve dragged on so long that it’s hard to remember why this stuff even matters.

We need to get back to first principles. Healthy cities need mobility. Most of that should be covered with infrastructure for active transportation – walking or biking – and a robust public transit system.

Ground transportation providers exist to fill in the gaps. They can provide an extra layer of mobility on top of core infrastructure. Ensuring that layer is safe, reliable and accessible should be the primary goal of this debate.

It hasn’t been, though. Since the beginning, all sides have been weighed down by baggage and self-interest.

Uber has flouted city bylaws while waging a pandering PR campaign, offering deep discounts and even going so far as to cart in a pile of puppies.

Most annoyingly, Uber advocates insist on using nonsense terms like “rideshare” and “sharing economy” — it’s like they’re always on the verge of delivering a spontaneous TED Talk — instead of just talking plainly about the business model.

The taxi industry is no better. They’ve fought reforms for years. Last week, many cab drivers responded to the city’s report by hurling insults.

The resistance to change has made them unpopular and driven a desire for alternatives. It’s 2016 and I still can’t be sure a cab driver will accept my destination or let me pay with a debit card. That’s not okay.

And then there are the city hall politicians.

Some of them seemingly like Uber just because polls say it’s a popular service. Some dislike Uber primarily because the taxi industry is good at lobbying. Some are rightfully concerned about what Uber means for drivers barely eking out a living wage, though I’m not exactly convinced taxi regulations should be part of the city’s anti-poverty strategy.

Few politicians, however, are talking about how these regulations can better support overall mobility. This shouldn’t be a debate about supporting an industry. It shouldn’t be a debate about disrupting an industry. Let it be about moving people.

And hurry the hell up.

This post was originally published at on 2016-04-18T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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