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'Blacklisted' by Uber: Taxi companies can't satisfy local demand

Staffing shortages, lack of ride-share services lead to long wait times for cabs and 'frustrating' situation, resident laments
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John Beck, owner of Able Taxi, says local taxi companies are struggling to keep up with demand. Dave Dawson/OrilliaMatters File Photo

With Orillia blacklisted from Uber’s service area, as well as red tape and staffing issues preventing local taxi companies from achieving full service levels, a resident is among many frustrated with alternative transportation options in the city.

Jeremy Andrews is upset about the lack of ride-share services like Uber and long wait times with local taxi companies.

“There’s not a lot of different transit options,” Andrews told OrilliaMatters. “In terms of public transit, the buses are fairly limited, especially on the weekends, so you’re kind of left with car or taxi being your only options. Taxis can work OK sometimes, but it’s fairly expensive and there aren’t actually that many taxis and it’s so difficult for them to respond to demand.”

“If you’re out for the evening somewhere and you want to get home, it can take quite a while to get actually get a taxi,” Andrews said.

He noted a taxi to Barrie might cost around $80, while the same ride with Uber might cost around $30.

“The frustrating thing about it is that Uber originally didn’t come to Orillia because of the ... bylaws that were preventing them from operating in Orillia,” he said.

In the summer of 2018, late in its previous term, city council passed a bylaw permitting Uber to operate in Orillia, with the caveat that Uber drivers would require vulnerable-sector checks just the same as local taxi drivers.

In the end, Uber never came to Orillia, and the company ultimately blacklisted the city from its service area.

“The taxicab industry has to have (vulnerable-sector checks), so council just wanted to go and say, ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s make it at the same level,’” Coun. Mason Ainsworth said. “I totally get the justification, but what I think they should have done is just got rid of some of the restrictions for the taxicab industry so it’s more of an equal playing field.”

“Uber said forget it (and) blacklisted Orillia, so they won’t operate here. We’re still blacklisted to this day,” Ainsworth added.

Despite walking back some of the requirements for ride-sharing services, Ainsworth said, Uber has yet to offer its services in the city.

“Council decided to change that requirement so that if they were, I think, getting seniors and people under the age of 18, they would have to have that check, but if it was for anybody else, they wouldn’t need to. They thought that that would fix the situation, but it was too late,” Ainsworth said.

“Once you burn one of those bridges, especially with such a major company, it’s hard to get face time with them.”

Although no ride-sharing services currently operate in Orillia, Able Taxi owner John Beck has said local taxi services have struggled to meet demand.

His company once employed 40 to 50 drivers and had 18 vehicles prior to the pandemic, but his staffing levels have since dwindled to 20 drivers. A big part of the issue with recruiting new employees, Beck said, is the up to three months’ wait time for completing a vulnerable-sector check.

“When a guy comes for a taxi job, he doesn’t want a job in three months; he wants a job within the week,” Beck said. “So, if a guy comes in, say, January and he (can’t) get behind the wheel till April, he’s gone, he’s found something else. That has caused a lot of shortfalls in the taxi industry where we can’t hire people, and that’s why our customers are waiting an hour.”

Beck said taxi companies face a barrage of regulations for offering their services, noting he isn’t opposed to ride-sharing services like Uber, but thinks taxi companies should be allowed to operate on an equal playing field.

“My view isn’t that they’re not welcome. My view is you can’t give us a whole bunch of regulations — for instance, our bylaws are five inches thick, and then to have Uber come in with no regulations at all, or very few — when the taxi industry has been here for decades,” he said.

Some of the regulations Beck pointed out include considerably higher insurance fees, certification requirements for vehicles every six months, criminal and vulnerable-sector checks, age limits for vehicles, as well as “all kinds of other regulations.”

“We don’t want customers to wait an hour, but it’s hard for us,” he said. “We want to offer the best service possible.”

Ainsworth sympathized with the struggles local taxi companies have faced in terms of staffing.

“Now we’ve had COVID, and life has completely changed as we know it, and we’re hearing again that in the taxicab industry, from riders but also from taxicab company owners, that it’s hard to get people to work,” he said. “And then if they’re fortunate enough to get somebody who actually wants to work in today’s society, there’s all these barricades in the way.”

He said it would be worth looking into streamlining some of the more costly or time-consuming regulations the taxi industry faces, and that he would be interested in doing “whatever we could do to make things easier for businesses to operate.”

“We’ve identified that there’s an issue with that, so let’s come with a solution,” he said. “Do we have the opportunity to get some sort of a streamlined service that, if you have a business in town that requires (a vulnerable-sector check) to operate your business, is there some way to fast-track that?”

As the current term of council winds down before the municipal election this fall, Ainsworth hinted the incoming council would have a great opportunity to work on a solution that attracts ride-share services while also helping taxi companies.

“There could actually be some major changes around council, so it’s a good opportunity for the council of next year to say, ‘Hey, how can we fix this mess?’” he said. “(They could) actually take some time, as long as the majority is on the same page, that we do want Uber and other services, yet they make a conscious effort to go out and lobby them.

“But also, it’s not fair to do that and leave our taxicab companies scrambling, so we should also be having the discussion (about) how can we make this better for (taxi companies) within the city of Orillia," Ainsworth added.