Drafted bylaws could up-end Uber’s Kingston operation

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Kingston Area Taxi Commission could face potential “legal wrangling” over jurisdiction

Stakeholders of the Wednesday’s meeting chat outside of City Hall.

The Kingston Area Taxi Commission (KATC) held a meeting on Wednesday to continue the review of recently drafted bylaws that could disrupt the operations of ridesharing companies like Uber in Kingston.

Uber has been operating in Kingston since November of 2015, and like many other cities, has faced pushback from the local taxi drivers and companies in the form of bylaws.

Although stakeholders gave input on their written submissions at the meeting, no motion was brought forward on the draft bylaws. In order to allow more submissions from all parties and to potentially tweak some of the language of the bylaws, the KATC will reconvene on October 18 to move forward with the reading process. 

Uber’s Canadian Public Policy Manager Chris Schafer was present at the meeting and spoke briefly, arguing that there has been a lack of public consultations and studies in the bylaw drafting process. 

“KATC lacks the financial resources that other city councils have to study this issue thoroughly. That sometimes means hiring a consultant or experts in the area like most cities have done,” he said.

In an interview with The Journal two days prior to the meeting, Schafer explained that many cities across Canada and many in Ontario have “already developed and passed” relatively uniform regulations for ridesharing. Schafer expressed that the bylaws are “not consistent with the consensus that has developed,” calling Kingston “way, way far out in terms of what they’re proposing.”

Controversial draft bylaw provisions

The changes brought before the commission seek to implement regulations that would make it difficult for Uber to operate in Kingston. One part of the proposal would require the company to maintain a physical office space in the city, something that cuts directly against the tech giant’s business model. 

The commission is also in favor of creating a test for new drivers to prove they have sufficient knowledge of the city before hitting the road. 

Schafer points out that no other city in Ontario requires a knowledge test, as drivers utilize the in-app GPS system. “[The commission] is ignoring the fact that it’s 2017 and not 1975, where we don’t have the internet, Google maps and all this other technology.”

Under the draft, drivers would have to jump through several security hoops like providing fingerprints, a photo driver’s license and sign a sworn affidavit. The bylaws would also feature a “vehicle supply cap” that would limit the amount of Uber cars on the road to 150. Schafer said these changes would also be completely unprecedented in Ontario.

Wednesday’s contentious City Hall meeting

The KATC meeting at City Hall Wednesday. Photo by Iain Sherriff-Scott

In Wednesday’s meeting, Schafer presented several arguments in favor of Uber, on top of the written submissions he had presented to the commission throughout the drafting process.

One of Schafer’s arguments appealed to the safety of Queen’s students. “Studies have shown [that] having ridesharing options to get around a city lowers the instances of driving under the influence.”

While Schafer spoke, a taxi driver who attended the meeting interjected multiple times, demanding Schafer stop “taking money” out of his pockets. Despite this, Schafer continued, arguing that Uber is beneficial to senior citizens and immigrants struggling to find extra work.

The commission also heard from Mark Greenwood, the president and owner of Amey’s Taxi, who expressed that taxi services have “been around Kingston for over 100 years,” but also that he wasn’t opposed to change. Greenwood vocalized his support for the draft bylaws, also indicating he would be open to “cut around the edges” once the bylaws had been implemented. 

Throughout the meeting, a topic of particular interest was cases of sexual assault against Uber drivers. Highlighted several times throughout the meeting, Greenwood emphasized that “one sexual assault is too many.”

Polling about Uber in Kingston 

During Schafer’s speech at the meeting, he touched on a poll that Uber had commissioned for Kingston from Nanos. The results showed that not only had 97 per cent of Kingston residents heard of Uber, but 63 per cent of residents support or somewhat support the draft bylaws allowing Uber to continue operation in Kingston.

Greenwood criticized Uber for their reliability when it comes to statistics, saying that he doesn’t trust statistics from Uber “for known reasons,” adding “they have had scandals.” Greenwood brought up the recent Greyball scandal, in which Uber utilized a secret data collection system to skirt the authorities in cities across the world.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that Uber’s use of the Greyball tool “underscores the lengths to which the company will go to dominate its market.”

“Using its app to identify and sidestep the authorities where regulators said Uber was breaking the law goes further toward skirting ethical lines — and, potentially, legal ones,” wrote the Times’ Mike Isaac.

Who has the final say?

Given the difficulty Uber has faced in Kingston with the commission so far, Schafer is confident that his side will be able to win an argument over jurisdiction.

“The KATC gets its jurisdiction from a several-decades-old (1989-90) piece of old provincial legislation that governs the KATC and grants it jurisdiction over ‘taxi cabs,’” adding that it “only mentions taxi cabs.” Schafer pointed out that at the time of the legislation, Uber could not have been predicted, and therefore it remains unclear if the commission will have the final say.

Excluding the KATC, “jurisdiction would naturally rest with the Kingston City Council, and I think frankly it’s a better body to deal with these issues,” Schafer expressed, citing that the council has more resources to effectively regulate Uber.

Schafer will again be present at the upcoming October 18 meeting to continue making his case against the bylaws.

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