Montreal needs to get on the right side of history with Uber

Commentary: The corrupt taxi industry is fighting a losing battle against a superior service.


Dear Montreal: Please don’t ban Uber.

Doing so would both eliminate a service that people depend on daily and label the city as resistant to innovation.

The claims against Uber and its drivers and passengers are simple. The arrival of the tech company has meant a tough time over the last year for taxi drivers. The drivers say that because Uber doesn’t face the same regulation as traditional taxis, it allows them to undercut their fares. This is hurting their bottom line, and the taxi owners and drivers say that Uber is operating illegally.

I can sympathize with the situation that taxi drivers have been put in by the emergence of Uber as an alternative mode of transportation. The drivers are dedicated to their job, and work long and difficult hours. Unfortunately, they’re defending an industry, because of many issues of its own, whose time may be up.

The emergence of Uber has exposed some issues in the taxi industry that were going along unchecked. Take for instance the example of taxis in Toronto. In an article in The Globe and Mail, Peter Cheney outlines the corruption and monopolization of the taxi industry, highlighting the example of Mitch Grossman. Grossman owns more than 100 taxi licences in the city, known as “plates,” and, according to Cheney, extorts drivers for the use of the plates. When his article outlining the practices was published, Toronto officials wanted to change the system, but plate owners “threatened to sue city hall for the value of their licences, arguing that Toronto bureaucrats had allowed the system to develop, even though it was technically against the rules.” Because the cost of the suit would have been too much, no action was taken. The plates keep losing value, and the cost is getting passed on to the drivers, and in turn to the passengers. It isn’t unusual for a taxi  driver to bring in only $20 to $40 dollars per 12 hour shift, after expenses, according to Cheney.

Working conditions like these have no place in a developed country like Canada, and banning Uber and other competitors to the taxi industry — the service already has competitors in the U.S., such as Lyft — only enables this broken system. An Uber driver owns their own vehicle and works their own hours. An Uber driver isn’t beholden to an overbearing boss, demanding that the cars be on the roads 24 hours a day. We can do better, and there already is an alternative. Uber isn’t holding back the taxi industry, but an old fashioned business model and fraudulent ownership practices (kept in place by poor regulation) is. Can taxis right themselves before it’s too late? Only time will tell, but aiming their efforts at Uber isn’t going to help.

Putting this into a little historical perspective reveals plenty of other times that technological innovation changed how we do business. Take for instance the travel industry. When online booking companies such as Expedia and Travelocity came on the scene, the neighborhood travel agent was hurt. The same happened to movie rental stores when Netflix gained in popularity. Record stores suffered during the onset of the iTunes store and streaming services such as Spotify. In fact, even the taxi itself replaced the stagecoach, and thousands of drivers (not to mention the horses) were put out of a job. The list goes on and on. These are now services we accept and depend upon daily, thanks to technological innovation. The advantages of the new services became obvious, and the old way of doing things was no longer sustainable. Today, again, the advantages are obvious. Here are three reasons I prefer Uber to taxis.

1. Calling an Uber car to come pick you up is as simple as taking out your smartphone and entering a location. In a city like Montreal, a car is only ever a few minutes away, and you can wait inside while the driver navigates to your location, a nice perk during Montreal’s brutal winters. Your phone then alerts you when your car has arrived.

2. As soon as an Uber driver has accepted your request and is driving to your location, you have access to information about him or her. You have a photo, name and rating, out of five stars, based upon previous passengers’ experiences. If, for any reason, you don’t wish to ride in their vehicle, you can cancel your ride and request another, no questions asked. All drivers are required to pass background checks before they are allowed to drive for Uber.

3. No cash? No problem. Although taxis in Montreal are now required to accept debit and credit cards, some drivers have been known to demand payment in cash, to avoid payment fees being processed. In fact, in an Uber, because your credit or debit card is already entered and saved within the mobile app, you don’t even need to have your wallet with you at all. Simply get in and get out, the payment is handled automatically and remotely. No need to wait for change, and no tipping required either.

Banning Uber, although it would protect the taxi industry as we know it, would hold Montreal commuters and workers back. The world is moving forward, and it would be foolish to stifle innovation in the name of protecting a poisonous monopoly. The people of Montreal have spoken on the matter, based on Uber’s popularity over the last year. According to Uber’s own statistics, someone calls an car in Montreal every nine seconds. Uber averages 300,000 trips in the city everyone month. If the taxi industry wants to survive and thrive, it’ll have to innovate, not try to hold back others from doing so. ■

For the other side of the argument, see commentary from a journalist (who’s also former cab driver and current licence owner) here.