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Sudbury considers impact of Uber
Jan. 19, 2016
By Ben Leeson

Deb McIntosh has seen other cities caught unprepared for Uber's arrival, but she wants to see Greater Sudbury avoid the discord that has plagued some jurisdictions where the controversial ride-sharing program has gained a foothold.

That's why the Ward 9 councillor tabled a motion last fall calling staff to review current taxi bylaws and report back in spring on how ride-sharing services like Uber might impact the city.

"I'm hoping to avoid what's happening in other cities," McIntosh said. "That was the instigation for me to put this motion forward, to prevent conflict. I wanted us to be proactive rather than reactive and just waiting until it gets here."

As part of the city's review, residents have been invited to complete a survey online or on paper at any Greater Sudbury Public Library branch by Thursday.

City staff will also answer questions and listen to feedback during an open house at Tom Davies Square, in room C-11, on Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m.

Results from the review, including responses to public and industry surveys, will be presented in a report to council in early 2016.

Uber is a highly successful - and, in some areas, controversial - ride-sharing program that allows consumers to use a mobile app to submit a trip request, which is then routed to Uber drivers who use their own cars. It is available in more than 50 countries and 300 cities worldwide.

There are no reports of Uber operating in the city, but the company posted a job ad looking for drivers last fall.

"While we don't have specific launch plans for Sudbury at the moment, I can tell you that Uber aims to expand to communities across Canada and we're always looking at what's next," said Susie Heath, an Uber representative.

The legality of the service has been challenged by governments and taxi companies, who allege that Uber's use of drivers who are not licensed to drive taxis is unsafe and illegal.

There have been high-profile anti-Uber protests, including a large one in Toronto last December that erupted into open confrontation when a cabbie hung onto an Uber driver's rear-view mirror and was dragged while he tried to drive away.

"I'm new at this and you take a lot of things for granted," McIntosh said. "I said to someone the other day, 'Why do we regulate the taxis?' and someone said to me, 'Well, it's public safety.'

"I don't think the taxi companies, at least the ones I have talked to, are against Uber so much as they want us to review what regulations we have on them - can they compete? - to be fair. The way I came at it was I don't really know what Uber is, because we don't have it, and if I need to know more about it, so does the rest of council, because this is going to come to us eventually."

Sharon Flinn, part-owner of Lockerby Taxi, believes Sudbury may not have a large enough population to serve as an ideal market for Uber, but is nonetheless keeping tabs on the company's activities.

"Yes, competition is good, but it needs to be on an equal and fair playing ground," Flinn said. "Right now, it's not."

Cab companies have regulated prices, she said, and have strict policies and procedures that must be followed to have drivers licensed, including criminal record checks, and vehicles must have two safety certificates per year.

Flinn also voiced concerns over proper insurance coverage for Uber drivers, which have had insurance companies rushing to fill gaps in the market.

"That's the biggest hassle," Flinn said. "Down in the States, where they're very popular, and across Europe, you don't need that kind of insurance. Ontario has very strict insurance regulations for commercial vehicles, and that's what they are. They're operating a business as a commercial operator."

Uber is no longer unique in its use of a mobile app, Flinn said - her own company has the Lockerby Go app, for example, and is one of several taxi operators to make use of such technology.

"We're just hoping if the city does legislate for Uber to come in, they make it on an equal playing ground," Flinn said. "If we can change our prices, too, and have them fluctuate, then fine, we'll take the competition, because competition is good for business, but at the same time, safety is our first issue, because you're carrying people, not packages."

Regarding regulation, Heath pointed to recent court rulings in Ontario and Alberta which determined Uber is a new business model distinct from taxi.

"We look forward to continuing our work with officials in Sudbury to develop permanent regulatory solutions for ride-sharing, just as has been done in almost 70 jurisdictions around the world," she said.

Uber takes safety seriously, Heath said, and the app uses built-in features to protect both riders and drivers.

Drivers must pass background check that includes a national criminal record check of federal RCMP databases, she said.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy on any criminal history, including sexual offences. We also screen motor vehicle records for any infractions by type and date."