Uber could begin operating in Orillia later this year.
On Monday, council committee endorsed a strategy that addresses Uber’s primary concerns and opens the door for the popular ride-sharing service to move into the Orillia market.
The decision is subject to ratification at Monday’s council meeting.
Monday night’s one-hour debate and decision could mark the end of what’s been a contentious, two-plus-year process.
Initially, after a public forum, consultation with the taxi industry and multiple meetings, city council voted, in August of 2018, to allow ride-sharing services to operate in the city.
However, the city decreed that drivers for such services would have to undergo a vulnerable sector check (VSC) - in addition to a criminal record check. The idea was to protect the public and ensure local ride-sharing services and local taxi drivers face the same level of scrutiny.
In Ontario, only Windsor and Ottawa require ride-share drivers to undergo a VSC.
When Uber learned about the VSC requirement, and based on other business considerations, they hit the brakes. When the city refused to back down, they blacked out their app in Orillia and opted not to offer their service in the city.
Since then, wait times for local taxis - especially during peak late-night hours on weekends - have become a huge issue.
It was that issue that prompted Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke to ask staff to revisit the issue and present some options for consideration.
The mayor stressed council originally mandated the VSC for safety reasons.
“However, it seems another safety issue has been created or exacerbated,” said Clarke, noting people have been unable to get a ride home after drinking at downtown bars and restaurants. He said a one- to two-hour wait time has become common.
”As a result, people are making decisions they shouldn’t be making,” noted the mayor, adding a lack of options such as Uber “has created other safety concerns.”
On Monday night, council was presented with several options - including maintaining the status quo, extending Orillia Transit hours on weekend nights, the development of a private shuttle service or removing the VSC component as part of a multi-pronged strategy to satisfy Uber.
Ultimately, council committee voted to green-light several changes to the bylaw.
Prior to the decision, there was some lively debate - often cheered or booed by a handful of downtown restaurant owners and Uber fans.
Coun. Rob Kloostra summed up the pro-Uber argument.
“Orillians deserve the option of Uber,” said Kloostra. “Employees need to get to work on time (and) bar patrons need a safe ride home. Bar owners can’t continue to drive patrons home after the bar closes.”
He urged his council colleagues to “no longer be a barrier for the democratic right (of citizens) to choose their own transportation home. If taxpayers do not want to use ride sharing services, they don’t have to,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
Coun. Ted Emond championed the other side of the argument, stressing he is a “very strong advocate” for VSCs.
He commended staff for “leveling the playing field” for taxi drivers and ride-sharing services and said he recognized that Uber has a policy of not picking up unaccompanied youth under the age of 18.
“I do recognize, in our community, there are many others who are vulnerable and at risk,” said Emond, noting “if Boy Scout leaders and hockey coaches require vulnerable sector checks,” so, too, should taxi and ride-share drivers.
He also cautioned that Uber, ultimately, could decide not to operate in Orillia - despite these concessions.
He wanted “written assurance” that the global ride-share platform would be available in Orillia once these changes were made.
Shawn Crawford, the city’s manager of legislative services, said he has spoken with Uber Canada representatives multiple times in recent months.
“Their staff have indicated to me ... their intent is to apply to operate in the city in 2020” if these changes are made, Crawford said.
Coun. Jay Fallis tried to win support to postpone the decision. He said a new player, Facedrive, had reached out to Orillia about possibly operating in the city.
Fallis, amid boos from the audience, asked his council colleagues to postpone their decision to allow staff to do more research, noting Facedrive is a proponent of VSCs for its drivers.
The idea was shot down.
Coun. David Campbell said he was “uncomfortable” delaying the decision.
“We’re talking about postponing this to allow one particular company to basically have a ride sharing monopoly in the city if they’re willing to operate under the vulnerable sector check,” said Campbell.
He suggested Facedrive could apply to operate in Orillia and could use their strategy to employ drivers who pass a VSC as a “competitive advantage.”
“I think it’s gone on long enough. Let’s do what the people want us to do,” said Campbell. “I’ve heard overwhelmingly, nonstop, about this ... let’s get it done.”
A majority of his council colleagues agreed.
In the end, these five options, as suggested through city staff dialogue with Uber Canada, were endorsed:
- Remove requirement for a vulnerable sector screening certificate for transportation network company drivers and taxicab drivers before such a driver is able to operate in the city for the first time and alternatively, require a criminal record check provided such driver does not provide transportation services to unaccompanied persons under 18 years of age;
- Add an offence prohibiting a transportation network company driver or taxicab driver from providing transportation services to unaccompanied persons under 18 years of age without first having obtained and provided a vulnerable sector screening certificate;
- Reduce existing business licence fees for transportation network companies and taxicab companies by 20%;
- Remove requirement preventing a transportation network company driver or taxicab driver from providing transportation services if convicted of specific Highway Traffic Act offences listed in Schedule “B of Chapter 725; and
- Remove requirement for a Safety Standards Certificate to be submitted to a transportation network company biannually for vehicles that exceed 40,000 kilometres in the prior year.
Councillors Tim Lauer and Jay Fallis did not vote in favour of the recommendations.
Emond said a failure of the taxi industry in Orillia is to blame for many of the problems cited Monday night.
“The taxi industry has failed our community,” said Emond.
“We went a long long way and worked very, very hard to deregulate the transportation services that are offered in our community,” said Emond. “We responded to the taxi industry in terms of the concerns they raised ... and removed many of them to level the playing field.”
Despite that, “we have seen a decrease in quality of service. I am really disappointed they have not stepped up and provided the level of service our community wants, needs and is due.”