Brownstein: Have a little heart for Montreal’s cabbies
Pretty much everyone I know in this city has been smitten with Uber. They love the convenience. They love the app. They love the tracking device on their cells that watches their designated vehicle wend its way to their homes and enables them to know in just how many minutes it will arrive. They love deciding what type of auto — from basic to luxury — will retrieve them. And they love the cost — except when it’s a surge period, like holidays, busy rush hours or blizzards. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much a lot of the time here, but that still doesn’t deter the faithful.
No question, Uber is an inspired business model for our high-tech times — old-school taxi drivers be damned. They are now viewed as dinosaurs on our brave new boulevards.
No matter. My heart goes out to our beleaguered cab drivers. Yes, they messed up traffic big time in their protest Monday. But consider, please, that’s because they are being shafted big time, thanks to Uber and, doubtless, soon-to-come similar ride-sharing apps.
And now they have to deal with the provincial government’s Bill 17, which could soon sound the death knell for their industry.
There are Montreal cabbies who forked out $200,000 and even $300,000 for taxi permits back when this was a viable industry. Permit prices have since come down, but until recently could still cost nearly $100,000.
Plus, taxi drivers pay premiums on everything from their licences to their insurance. They have had to undergo all sorts of tests on their knowledge of city streets. They have had to submit to security checks.
Uber drivers don’t have to deal with most of these regulations and costs. Almost anyone with a valid driver’s licence can work for Uber — even those who barely know the city. (And please don’t tell me that GPS will get Uber drivers through our gridlock and detours, because that’s not always the case.)
Driving an Uber is a second job for many. Not so for most taxi drivers. Some have to work shifts of up to 16 hours a day to make ends meet.
And it shouldn’t be overlooked that driving a taxi is one of the few employment options available to many newly arrived immigrants to Montreal. Over the years, I have encountered taxi drivers who were engineers and professors and pharmacists and even one notary who had to leave their countries of origin for various political and social reasons. Their qualifications couldn’t pass muster here, so they became cabbies and accepted their lot. They poured their life savings and whatever else they could scrounge up into a taxi permit, in the hope of supporting their families. And somehow, many had resisted the urge to become bitter.
Given the CAQ’s stand on cutting back on immigration, not to mention its position on religious symbols, it’s perhaps not surprising that there doesn’t appear to be any great empathy for the plight of Quebec taxi drivers.
Last week, the CAQ tabled Bill 17, which would deregulate the taxi industry but really plays much more into the hands of Uber and others who seek to get into this transit mode.
In a short-sighted bid to even the playing field, Bill 17 would remove some of the more costly aspects of driving a taxi and allow drivers to charge more variable rates — as is the case with Uber. The Legault government would seek to compensate the cabbies by giving them $500 million.
On paper, that might look fair. It’s not. Certainly not to those who have spent hundreds of thousands for permits that could become seriously devalued or even worthless if Bill 17 is adopted. And $500 million doesn’t nearly compensate them.
The cabbies shouldn’t hold their breath for the provincial government to back down. In spite of many protests, the CAQ has yet to relent on its stands on immigration and religious symbols.
And Quebec Transport Minister François Bonnardel said on Monday that the $500 million compensation package was “a final amount,” and that cabbies should not expect even one cent more. Bonnardel plans to meet with taxi industry reps on Tuesday, to explain the advantages of the proposed bill. Right.
Not surprisingly, taxi drivers plan to protest until Bill 17 is withdrawn. That means many more traffic disruptions, which likely means public support for their cause will wane. And as it is, it’s highly doubtful there will be much resistance to Bill 17 from the public, because even liberal urbanites have become Uberites.