Vehicles for Hire in Ottawa: Smarter Transportation Planning for a Better City

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Ottawa is on the verge of a major transformation. Our city has passed the one million mark. The launch of the Confederation Line of LRT changed how we move about our city, and the completion of Stage 2 will keep moving us towards a new transportation future. We are updating our Official Plan and our Transportation Master Plan and thinking about new ways to build our city. There are new technologies, new approaches to urban design, new challenges as we adapt to a changing climate and a global pandemic, and new ways to foster a healthier and more prosperous Ottawa.

Through all these changes, we must ensure that our efforts support our priorities and our values. Our by-laws should be tuned to enhancing the lives of residents. Our transportation plans must reflect the needs of people in a growing city. Creating a more sustainable, more equitable, more livable city is reflected in our goals.

In the desire to ensure that innovation and disruptive technology is a net good to the city of Ottawa, it is important to review by-laws more regularly, as the pace of change is rapid. In this instance, a review of vehicles for hire and regulations placed on Private Transportation Companies (PTCs) such as Uber and Lyft, should be undertaken.

Simply reviewing by-laws after markets are upended and the consequences to residents, customers, workers and industries are already felt, however, is a reactionary and insufficient approach to city planning. Hence, we must also strive for our planning documents, e.g. our Official Plan (OP) and Transportation Master Plan (TMP), to be visionary and robust enough to presage and account for emergent challenges.

The evidence shows that PTCs are already challenging our transportation system, with negative effects on accessibility, congestion, environmental sustainability, road safety and workers’ rights. The global COVID-19 pandemic has only served to worsen this situation, with PTCs set to come out on the other side of the pandemic with a larger share of the Vehicle for Hire (VFH) and transit markets.

Core Principles

Our regulatory framework and city plans should be assessed against the following core principles when it comes to Vehicles for Hire (VFH):

  • A Focus on Equity and Accessibility

    Ottawa must be a city that welcomes and accommodates all people of all abilities. The VFH framework and city plans should ensure the city’s attempts to provide equity and accessibility in our transportation system are not undermined.
  • A Focus on Mobility, Modern Transportation and Environment

    Ottawa has declared a climate emergency. The new OP and TMP must acknowledge the threats posed by irreversible climate change and consider the effects of increased congestion that stem from the introduction of unlimited PTC drivers into the VFH market. Further, our VFH framework should be designed to support the short-, medium- and long-term transportation goals of the city as expressed in the new TMP, OP, and supporting plans and policies. Cities across the country and throughout the world are shifting to sustainable modes of transportation, and in Ottawa, our draft OP documents highlight this as part of ‘the 5 Big Moves’.
  • A Focus on Fairness and Safety

    Private Transportation Companies have entered and ‘disrupted’ transportation systems worldwide. The TMP, OP, and VFH framework should ensure that workers rights and safety are not easily undermined by private actors. The City of Ottawa is updating its Road Safety Action Plan and reviewing Vision Zero policy. The TMP, OP and VFH framework should be designed to encourage new transportation methods that increase safety for Ottawa residents and workers.

This position paper reviews Ottawa’s VFH market and presents a broad perspective on the need for the TMP, OP and VFH framework to ensure this market, and the actors therein, are operating in alignment with the core principles outlined above. The proceeding sections will provide rationale for reviewing and bolstering Ottawa’s plans and policies on VFH and building a transportation system that benefits all residents.

The Fight at City Hall

Advocating for better regulation of ride sharing services was a key plank of our 2018 election platform, and we have taken every opportunity thus far to do just that.

In August 2019 our office attempted to place a review of the VFH regulatory framework on the city’s by-law review workplan for the current term of council. Ultimately, we were unsuccessful in this effort. One of the most emphasized reasons as to why a review of the VFH regulatory framework was not warranted at this time was that more research on the Ottawa context was needed, and that much of that research would be best carried out as part of the process, now underway, to draft a new OP and TMP. It is hoped that this position paper, therefore, will help ensure that the appropriate research is undertaken, and will help to frame the issue so that the problems and concerns are salient to those undertaking research and drafting city plans.

Earlier that year, in March 2019, our office backed a motion directing the city to renegotiate a higher ‘accessibility surcharge’ from Ottawa PTCs. Unlike for traditional taxi companies, the city allows PTCs to pay their way out of providing accessible service to Ottawa residents via an ‘accessibility surcharge’. This paltry sum, 7-cents per ride, pales in comparison to other jurisdictions (e.g. it is $2.75 USD in New York City). Our own city-solicited report from KPMG on this subject in 2016 advised asking for 30-cents—a still paltry sum we fell well short of.

As we outline in this position paper, we believe that PTCs should be subject to the same accessibility requirements as traditional taxis in Ottawa. However, if the city is going to continue accepting this surcharge in lieu of accessible service, we believe that it should at the very least be asking for more. The March 2019 motion passed, and city staff were directed to negotiate a higher amount.

Two years later, the city has come back to Council and advised that the rate was negotiated to be only 3-cents higher for a total of 10-cents. The 3-cents is, in real terms, only 2-cents when one factors in the inflation from 2016 to 2021. This increase, however, was apparently implemented a year ago (in July 2020), but council was advised only recently (June 8, 2021). In any event, this miniscule increase is a slap in the face to accessible taxi drivers, to persons living with disabilities and ultimately to all Ottawa residents. This recent failure to stand up to these massive American corporations, in even a small way such as this, only serves to further emphasize the need for Ottawa to take seriously the recommendations of this report, and the critical review of the current situation underpinning them.

Read the full position paper here

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