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Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

The Edmonton Uber bylaw: Why taxis should fight for less regulation for all

Taxi drivers protest Uber last week in Edmonton.

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

Taxi drivers protest Uber last week in Edmonton.

The so-called Uber bylaw will be debated Tuesday, and it’s important the city gets this right — but perhaps for different reasons than are being discussed. The law affects all car-hire services in Edmonton. And thus, what goes forth after tomorrow’s meeting will likely set the standards until self-driving cars upend the industry, again. So: Will this bylaw get ahead of — or at least with — the times? The litmus test isn’t whether “private transportation providers” (the new category created for Uber) will be allowed. That was inevitable when thousands of Edmontonians said, “To hell with your standards of public safety — I’m hailing an Uber.”

Instead, the test is whether the city has the political will to scrap its archaic cap on taxi licence plates, currently standing at 1,235 for Edmonton’s approximate 3,000 drivers.
It’s a misguided insistence that government understand the supply chain, even though this 20-year-old cap has only inflated the price of the tin rectangles to almost $200,000.
And that’s erected an unnecessary barrier for anyone who wants to chauffeur passengers part-time, as Uber has demonstrated many want to do. Since it came along, this cap has created a definite group of winners and losers.

As of Aug. 14, there were 10 people and companies who owned 10 or more plates, according to files obtained through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The most owned by one company — 331001 Alberta Ltd. (a holding that includes Yellow Cab) — is 89, although some individuals own as many as 13. In total, these 10 owners alone account 16 per cent of the market.

The new bylaw ignores this situation — though it does remove the cap on accessible taxis for the physically disabled. It’s a noble effort that presumably would make all new cabs accessible going forward. But these cars also come with high fitting costs for drivers, and are unlikely to result in a significant number of issued licences.

Obviously, if the cap is lifted, a lot of people who invested in this skewed bubble stand to lose a lot of money. But that matters little to the general public. And that’s who the bylaw, in theory, serves.

The cab companies and associations are quick to insist on a level playing field with Uber, but aren’t demanding the same in their own ranks. They haven’t done the obvious and leveraged Uber’s demands to reduce regulations on all vehicle-for-hire companies.
Imagine they did. Is it really so bad that companies self-regulate their employees?

Insurance behemoth Intact has already demonstrated the private sector’s ability to respond to market needs by working with Uber on private car insurance. We don’t require businesses like restaurants to do criminal background checks (but many will for self-protection), nor must their cooks have culinary school certificates (but having one probably improves quality).

Yes, we spot-check kitchens — keeping the industry from regularly sending us to the ER. But we don’t limit how many exist. Instead, we let customers decide whether the service is good enough for them to return. Couldn’t the same be true of cars for hire?

Omar Mouallem (@omar_aok) is based in Edmonton and edits the Yards magazine.

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