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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A checkered proposal

It’s hard when, as mayor, you lose a motion at committee or council. It’s even more embarrassing when you can’t get a seconder. It’s like the mayor told those who wanted a pilot project for backyard chickens: you can’t please everyone.

Not too many people were left to witness the last item left on the agenda of the Community and Neighbourhood Committee CNC) last night. After all, once you have lobbied for artist representation on the board of Museum London, made the London Public Library the guardian of public morality, and made chickens enemy number one or the solution to global famine, what could be left to raise with the committee?

Taxi wars.

The taxi business in London, as in other cities across Canada, is one that few people think about. After all, we use taxis only occasionally: when too inebriated to drive, when visiting a city we reached by aircraft, or occasionally because we don’t own a private car and can’t use public transit.

And then there are the special occasions, when a taxi just doesn’t cut it. You need a limo.

Just the word “limousine” has the ring of luxury. It’s special. You don’t use it in a pinch just because it’s raining and you forgot your umbrella. You call in advance. You reserve it for weddings and proms and occasions when you want to impress.

So when you arrange for a limousine, you probably expect not just superior service but also a superior vehicle, classier, maybe a little newer. Not just another taxi.

Given those expectations, it probably is no surprise that the city has different expectations and standards when it comes to taxis and limos. And it does. It says that limos have to be replaced after six years, taxis after seven.

It was only a month or two ago that council approved a motion to review the taxi/limousine bylaw after months and years of research and preparation by staff.

I had my share of delegations and lobbyists from the taxi industry while I was on Board of Control. The competition in the industry is fierce. 

And why not? The city owns the plates that legalizes these businesses and restricts the number of cab licenses that will be issued. A plate doesn’t cost much, only a little over $500. But if there are only a few available, that makes them very valuable because it limits the competition. 

Although strictly speaking not legal, London, like almost every other major city in North America, has looked the other way when those who apply for its plates promptly hand them over to individuals with $120,000 in their pockets; others just charge double the purchase price every month for the privilege of attaching it to one's vehicle. It’s a great retirement fund and you can even leave the plate to your heirs!

As long as there are sufficient immigrants whose academic and professional credits aren’t recognized in Canada, there will be plenty of people who will pool their family resources to purchase the city's plates on the black market and there will be lots of immigrants to drive the cabs for a pittance to try to get a toehold in a lucrative business.

Limos are an afterthought, a way to avoid the rules of the taxicabs entirely. They’re mostly owned by Aboutown (the Donelly family) and Checker (the Fergusons).  A cheeky upstart tried to break into the business by calling itself Chakir.

Limos are regulated primarily by the degree of deliberation (you have to make an appointment in advance) and their rates are regulated by where they travel in the city rather than the actual distance traveled.
In reality, limos often behave like taxis, cruising around areas where there may be spontaneous requests for rides and frequently charging a lower overall rate than taxis.

The city has been working on revising the Taxi/Limousine Bylaw for a couple of years now. A few years ago, a former employee in the city clerk’s office tried to loosen the grip of the taxi plate owners (Aboutown and U-Need-A) by opening up unlimited opportunities for entrepreneurs to get into the Accessible Taxi business. A couple of delegations and heavy lobbying by current owners soon put paid to that. A few accessible cab plates were issued, not enough to upset the applecart. The employee left the city shortly thereafter, resigning without the prospect of other employment. It was probably unwise of him to acknowledge at a public meeting that the practice of leasing and selling plates was illegal. I too was warned that by questioning the practices in existence I didn’t know what I was doing. There were rumours of threats although I did not receive any or, if I did, had not recognized them.

Since then, the bylaw has been revisited and will be revised subject to a public participation meeting scheduled for November of this year.

So why was this issue coming forward now when the public participation meeting was scheduled for November?

The license renewals for limos are due in October. In order to renew the license, a vehicle must be no older than 6 years. That’s the rule as it currently exists. Most communities across Ontario have a similar rule although a few prefer to use mileage as the indicator.

It seems that Checker Cabs managed to get the ear of the mayor. Some 18 or 20 of its limos were about to exceed their best before dates and Checker was not happy. These are tough economic times, why not give the industry a break? Let’s allow for an extra year. Retirement at age 7 rather than 6.

The mayor liked it. A year here or there what’s the difference? At the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee meeting he challenged the criterion currently in effect under the bylaw. That would mean another public participation meeting soon, he was warned by administration. You just approved one for November. 

No matter, he moved a review in September. Steve Orser quickly seconded it.

But first, there were the industry delegations. 

Checker Limousines (aka Voyageur) encouraged allowing the cabs to remain in the workforce for another year. Aboutown argued that it had already followed the rules and bought new cabs; no fair changing the rules at the last minutes. 

A representative from London Taxi, a recently formed cooperative in the taxi business which does not operate limousines, agreed that it was unfair to change rules in midstream although he sympathized with Checker about the economic impact. London Taxi had recently invested heavily in buying hybrid vehicles. But the speaker was really incensed about what he perceived as trying to pull a fast one on the various interested parties by putting this request into the consent items rather than one requiring debate and a decision. That doesn't allow for interested parties to come forward to register their concerns. 

Finally, the London Taxi Association representing drivers argued that if the life span of limos was to be increased so should that of the taxis which is currently seven years. That should be increased to 9 years as it was in 2004, the last time the bylaw was amended. The drivers are the ones who frequently end up providing the vehicle to which a plate will be attached for the privilege of paying $1,000 pr month or more.

Having heard the arguments, Steve Orser, who has had some experience in trying to organize the industry,  withdrew his endorsement of the mayor’s motion and no one else stepped up to help Fontana out by seconding it. The motion died and the current bylaw continues in force until November.

So Donnelly won that round; but I remember all too well when the deadline for installing cameras in cabs was imminent and Aboutown was given a reprieve because it claimed to be working on developing its own camera and creating jobs in the process, good for the economy don’t you know.

It’s hard when, as mayor, you lose a motion at committee or council. It’s even more embarrassing when you can’t get a seconder. It’s like the mayor told those who wanted a pilot project for backyard chickens: you can’t please everyone. 

This time, it seems, he pleased no one.


Anonymous said...

The taxi industry has always been the most puzzling business in a city. I have no idea why they have so much influence at city halls across North America.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see that Arva Joe doesn't have the stranglehold on council that he thinks he does. (Too bad he had it when it came to preventing the pilot project for backyard hens from passing.)

Oliver Hobson said...

@ anonymous...he hasn't prevented it from passing...the vote still goes to council on August 29th.

It's also interesting that some municipal councillors have been out actively courting opposition to it during this process.

It's funny how a former Liberal cabinet minister can find time for council to speak about putting sewer lines out to Arva as if to reward chums through increasing land values but not time for London borne initiatives.

This is 'King' Joe who rewards supporters with your tax dollars...not Mayor Joe the judicious and impartial!

Sean Reever said...

It is rather interesting to see the state of services like taxis in london ontario. Thanks for this post