U of T news

Uber: criminology professor on the controversial, California-based company

City must protect workers as well as passengers, Mariana Valverde says

Toronto City Council voted this week to develop regulations for Uber by the spring – but, in the interim, the ride-sharing drivers have refused to abide by a request to stop operating.

The moves follow a tumultuous summer in which taxi drivers threatened to disrupt the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Games by way of protesting against what they view as an unlicensed taxi service.

The California-based company allows passengers to use the Uber app on their smartphones to find a taxi, private car or rideshare, or use UberX to hire a private driver. Toronto has proposed to reduce taxi fares to make licensed drivers more competitive. Since Uber says it has 16,000 drivers and 400,000 riders in Toronto, other Canadian cities are watching closely. Will Toronto create separate rules or bring all drivers under the same by-laws?

U of T News spoke to Professor Mariana Valverde of the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies.

Toronto City Council has voted to create new rules for Uber. What is the status of Uber users before these rules take effect?

Those who use the Uber app to book licensed taxis are fine, but it’s not clear what happens in the more common situation of using UberX to book an unlicensed driver in a private car. Toronto City Council asked Uber to stop using UberX until regulations are in place, but UberX is ignoring this request, quite openly. In my view, City Council was naïve to suppose that they could simply “request” a big, powerful business to stop operating a profitable service. We have by-laws because nice, polite requests are no substitute for legally enforceable rules.

Why has this issue become so controversial?

The taxi business has long been very tightly regulated with strict conditions for driving a taxi, fares set by the city and a maximum number of taxi plates. UberX drivers are at the other extreme of the regulatory spectrum. They are unlicensed in the sense that they have ordinary driving licenses, not commercial driver licenses. Their cars are not inspected or subject to any minimum standards, and there is no regulation of either the price or the conditions. So we have an overly regulated, indeed micromanaged formal sector on one side, and the Wild West, informal economy on the other. It’s no wonder there are controversies.

What would you like to see Toronto do? Should Uber fall under taxi bylaws or have separate bylaws?

The city staff proposal of creating a new category of municipal license is quite sensible. But, the devil will be in the details.

What should be included in these regulations?

At minimum, commercial insurance for Uber drivers; licensing by the city of both drivers and their cars; and criminal record checks for drivers. Those are likely to be imposed by City Council. But it’s not clear whether the fares will be subject to regulation. Nobody was talking about that in the debate and it was not mentioned in the city staff report.

Can we foresee a day when Uber rides and taxis cost the same?

I am not sure how feasible or useful it would be to try to impose the same fare rules for Uber as for taxis, so I am not making this as a firm policy suggestion. What I know is that taxi drivers make very little money as it is, and that Uber, which is a large, powerful company that has a monopoly on ride sharing, is a huge threat to their livelihood. The city licenses taxis and so has a responsibility to protect their livelihood and working conditions. Consumer protection is also important, but it’s not the only factor to be considered in drawing up regulations. Worker protection is important too.