HALIFAX—Taxi drivers are already considering legal action against the municipality in the wake of a report recommending sweeping changes to industry rules.
Based on the Vehicle for Hire Licensing Program Review, conducted by Ottawa-based consultant Hara Associates over more than a year, municipal staff are recommending changes to increase the limit on taxi owner licences; get rid of taxi zones; require global position systems (GPS) in all taxis; increase training for drivers; and much more.
Regional council ordered the review after a number of people said they were sexually assaulted in Halifax taxis. The resulting report aims to improve safety but also reform the local taxi industry more broadly.
Hara Associates interviewed taxi drivers, representatives from the municipality’s taxi brokers, business representatives, councillors and citizens. The municipality also conducted an online survey on the industry.
Of the report’s 27 recommendations, municipal staff are advising council to adopt 15. Staff also suggested a number of “housekeeping amendments,” including limits on vehicle age, a requirement that all vehicles accept debit and credit cards as well as rules prohibiting the use of cellphones, headsets, cannabis and vaporizers.
The transportation standing committee will debate the report on Tuesday. Before making their recommendations to city council, they will have to consider a swath of thorny issues, which could have major impacts on safety, accessibility and the shape of the industry as a whole.
Zones and licence limits
Taxis operating in the municipality are divided into three zones: about 600 in Halifax and 200 each in Dartmouth and “County,” which covers everything else. Drivers licensed in one zone can drive passengers to another but usually can’t drive passengers within a foreign zone.
Hara Associates’ report recommends two zones: one urban and one rural. Municipal staff chose to do away with zones altogether, “allowing taxi owners to operate freely throughout HRM … and reducing customer confusion.”
The consultant’s report recommends expanding the number of taxis in proportion to the municipality’s population growth, but staff chose instead to increase the limit on taxi owner licences by a one-time flat amount: to 1,600 from 1,000.
The staff report says there’s currently a wait list for taxi owner licences of 500. The consultant’s report said one driver has been waiting since 2004 for a licence in the Halifax zone. Many drivers on the wait list rent owner licences, often referred to as “roof lights.” They go for as much as $300 a month in the Halifax zone.
Municipal staff recommend the new cap of 1,600 to allow those on the wait list to buy their own licence, along with another 100 or so.
The staff report notes “existing owners could be negatively affected financially as a result of increasing limitations because there would be more owner licences in the market, and those currently in private lease arrangements may instead choose to obtain their own owner’s licence directly from HRM.”
“It should be noted that this has been a contentious issue in other jurisdictions where taxi drivers have threatened or taken legal action against municipalities that have increased or eliminated caps on taxi licences,” the report said.
“That is as likely as darkness falling after daylight,” Halifax Taxi Association president Dave Buffett said in an interview.
“It would in all probability be a class-action suit. We’re all going to be negatively impacted.”
Despite the financial effects noted in the staff report, Buffett argued the limitation on licences is designed to protect the public, not licence owners. Poor profit, he said, can lead to weary drivers operating rundown cars.
“The limitations are in place to provide a balance of us making enough profit to maintain a car and do so without working 18 hours a day and still provide a good level of service,” he said.
Increasing the limit could mean fewer accessible cabs in Halifax, Buffett argues. The number is already low, according to the staff report: Of the 1,000 licences in Halifax, only 16 are for accessible cabs.
“We provide very poor service to persons with disabilities. That’s one of the big concerns that I have,” Buffett said.
There is no wait list for accessible taxi owner’s licences. However, Buffett said that, considering the expense of an accessible taxi, the limitation on conventional licences is the only reason there are any accessible cabs on the road at all.
“People don’t want to wait for a roof light, so they say, ‘I want the independence of having my own light, instead of renting from somebody,’” Buffett said.
An accessible van costs about $40,000, Buffett said, while a used mid-size sedan can be had for less than $10,000. Then there’s the gas: Buffett’s sedan burns 30 per cent of the gas that an accessible van does, he said.
The staff report recommends council look into creating a grant program, offering $10,000 toward the cost of purchasing an accessible taxi or converting an existing vehicle. It would also pay a $10-per trip subsidy.
Buffett said the math still wouldn’t work out. He said he told consultant Dan Hara that if they add roof lights, there’ll be no accessible cabs in Halifax within three months.
“The proposed increase in roof lights will kill the accessible taxi industry in Halifax,” he said.
“Rude drivers. Have been sexually assaulted on two occasions by drivers. Do not feel safe in HRM taxis,” wrote one respondent to the municipality’s survey.
A sampling of comments is included in the staff report.
“Getting into a cab in Halifax, you never know if you are going to be ripped off … or if the taxi driver will be inappropriate towards you,” wrote another. “I would feel much safer with a ride service like Uber, as the route is automated and the driver is tracked.”
Municipal staff recommend that every taxi have a GPS system to track the vehicle’s location but reject the consultant’s recommendation that every cab be fitted with a camera. The consultant recommended phasing in cameras over a year and adding 10 cents to the fixed-charge portion of a cab fare to pay for them.
Staff felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits.
“A number of municipalities have removed the requirement for cameras in the last few years,” the staff report said. “Lack of memory storage and access to the files during an investigation were cited as significant issues as well as the possibility of cameras not working or being altered so they cannot work.”
The consultant’s report also recommended adding to the municipality’s code of ethics to bar harassment and prohibit drivers “from having sexual relations with passengers or accepting sex in exchange for vehicle-for-hire services.”
Municipal staff chose to address those concerns in their training recommendations, “as we feel this would be more impactful.”
There’s currently no training provided by the municipality, the staff report said. Drivers are required to get criminal record checks, then pass an English language test and tests about the geography of Halifax and the municipality’s bylaws.
Staff recommended council approve bylaw amendments to make training mandatory.
“The training could include the development of an updated driver training video with the participation of disability advocacy organizations, experienced HRM drivers and other stakeholders,” the report said.
Asked whether they’d use an Uber or Lyft app, 88 per cent of respondents to the municipality’s survey said yes.
“It is inevitable that ride sourcing will come to the region as it has to all major destinations in Canada,” the staff report said.
But rather than make a recommendation on allowing ride-hailing apps, the staff report recommends council ask for another report on the subject.
The consultant’s report does consider ride-hailing. One major recommendation is to include taxi companies, known as brokers or dispatchers, in the taxi bylaw. Two examples are Yellow Cab and Casino Taxi.
“An unusual feature of HRM’s taxi and limousine bylaw is that it does not license taxi companies. Only individual vehicles and drivers are licensed,” the report said.
Since ride-hailing apps function as brokers, the report argues that the municipality will have to regulate brokers in order to maintain control over whether services like Uber and Lyft set up shop in Halifax and what conditions may be placed on them.
The report warns there are risks to those services staying unregulated, including safety, service and law-enforcement concerns. However, it notes there are also significant issues to consider for regulated operation, including driver training, insurance and the impact on the existing taxi industry.
“All of these issues, and the basic question of whether or not (ride-hailing apps) should be admitted to HRM, would benefit from consultation with the industry and users. Enough is at stake to warrant this level of consideration,” the report said.