The UBER Debate, and What it Means to Low-Income Torontonians

The debate surrounding ride-sharing service Uber reached new heights as cab drivers took to the streets in protest.

The protests, featuring at times frightening instances of bad judgment and hostility, have largely had the opposite effect of what its organizers hoped; public sentiment has largely condemned these cab drivers, and hardened simmering hostilities towards what has long been a ubiquity of city living the world over: the often awful experience of taxis.

But what is largely lost amidst the rhetoric and chest-beating of Uber vs. taxis is what the debate as a whole represents: the lucrative economy of Toronto transit’s inadequacies, and more importantly, what that means to Toronto’s low-income residents.

With recent announcements of increase to cash fares on the TTC, and the under-whelming solution in scrapping fares for children under 12, and Mayor Tory’s ‘SmartTrack’ transit plan having both Provincial and Federal blessings, a sad reality is setting in. The next wave of Toronto’s transit – hotly debated as it was during the 2014 election campaign – will likely reflect political aspirations more than practical needs.

In June, Social Planning Toronto released a policy paper in advance of the then upcoming Federal Election calling for increased federal funding of transit in Toronto to help offset the burden placed on riders paying cash and pass fares. Additionally, it calls for a number of other interesting changes in 2016; many seemingly common sense if you think about it;

  • a free monthly Metropass for OW and ODSP recipients
  • a $50 monthly Metropass for low-income Torontonians (based on the LICO)
  • free TTC travel on days when Toronto Public Health issues extreme weather alerts

But, most importantly – and applicably to the Uber vs. taxis debate, the paper calls for increased access to the city’s inner suburbs like Scarborough, and the entire northwest end of the city by way of increasing service to existing areas, as well as expanding service in the city’s numerous ‘transit deserts’ (areas where residents experience the highest level of disparate access to transit).

These ‘deserts’ represent areas where low-income residents often rely on taxis to get to and from where they need to go. Taxis have become such a staple in the lives of so many differently able and senior citizens that cab companies have tailored their business model to serving them, despite being quite significantly over-priced.

And such is the ugly reality of inequitable transit access.The highest costs are inevitably passed on to those least able to shoulder the burden. In Toronto’s case, those facing the largest barriers to transit are those who need it the most: low-income working Torontonians, OW/ODSP recipients, seniors, and the differently able. They slip between the cracks in Toronto’s rather porous transit system, and it’s the taxi industry which benefits.

Enter Uber. A 21st century solution to a 17th century problem: the over-priced taxi ride. Surely in 1605 in London (where the first hackney carriage for hire rides took place), the passenger huffed at the price requested/balked at the cleanliness of the carriage/critiqued the driving and navigation skills of the driver, only to be reminded that they really didn’t have any other options. It actually took 50 years before England introduced it’s first legislation regulating hackney carriages.

With that in mind, Uber only first emerged in Toronto in 2012 in the midst of the turbulent Ford years. As a result, it’s only been semi-recently that it has become contentious as the app’s popularity has exploded in the movement-starved City of Toronto. Largely ignored during the Ford years, it seems Uber has become Mayor Tory’s sole possession, and the timing couldn’t be worse for the Mayor, or for Toronto.

Taxis have long been viewed as a path to prosperity in Toronto. Our first taxi service was started by an escaped slave from Detroit named Thornton Blackburn. Blackburn, who had escaped slavery in Louisville, Kentucky and fled to Detroit was re-captured along with his wife Lucie and jailed. The jailing was met with significant community opposition; Lucie was able to escape by switching clothes with a visiting supporter, while Thornton was freed amidst a two-day riot in which 400 African-American stormed the jail to free him.

The uprising was the City of Detroit’s first race riot.

Blackburn raised the money to build his first cab, which he named “The City”, by working as a waiter at current City Hall’s neighbour Osgoode Hall, making the recent protests at Queen and Bay even more historically resonant.

Now, as drivers – forced to work longer and longer hours, and pay exorbitant prices for taxi licenses in Toronto – protest the City of Toronto and accuse Uber of causing serious harm to their paycheques, cabs are being diverted away from regular routes to participate in protests, leaving low-income Torontonians with no option but to support the very system which is stacked against both themselves, as well as the drivers. Their voices more readily accepted than in the seemingly endless rounds of ‘public consultation’ conducted by the TTC – which never seem to heed the ubiquitous call for lower fares for low-income Torontonians.

Toronto is at a crossroads in regards to movement, and the intensity of the Uber vs. taxis debate should always be viewed for what it is: the aggregate value of opportunity cost created by Toronto transit’s inefficiency.

The question shouldn’t be ‘Uber’ or ‘taxis’. The question should be why taxis have been allowed to become the antithesis of what they represent in Toronto historically: independence, opportunity and ingenuity. More importantly, it should be asked why a system – propped up by those who can least afford to shoulder burden – like Toronto’s taxi industry has been allowed to run a city-facilitated monopoly on alternate transit which has prospered due to gaps in city-facilitated services.

Will Uber level the playing field? Some argue that the lower cost is a benefit to low-income riders, but others argue that the need for a credit card and a smartphone means those without access to either would be unable to benefit from the lower-priced alternative, thereby excluding low-income populations.

Only time will tell, but what is apparent is that the need for change has been well established. Now we must set out the framework for what comes next, and whatever combination of TTC, Uber and taxis represents the outcome, the ratio should ensure that low-income Torontonians no longer shoulder the largest burden (relative to income) to get around Toronto.