Uber versus taxis: Who’s lobbying whom at Toronto city hall
Updated at 4:16 p.m. ET with a comment from Mayor John Tory’s office.
There’s been no shortage of public political posturing in Toronto’s battle over who’s allowed to drive you places for money and what happens if local governments can’t or won’t enforce their own bylaws.
But much of the jockeying takes place behind closed doors — in meetings, phone calls or email exchanges between councillors, policy-makers and those hoping to sway them.
The city has pledged to figure out, some time in the next several months, how and whether to regulate Uber and cab companies. But before that Global News looked at who’s been lobbying whom at Toronto city hall.
READ MORE: Mayor calls for freeze on taxi license fees
We did our best to make this snapshot both comprehensive and specific, including all lobbying activities that mentioned Uber as well as any that mentioned the licensing and regulation of taxis in the city.
We also restricted our time frame to include primarily lobbying activity during 2015, with some 2014 numbers for comparison. (Our interactive table below includes earlier dates, but the heaviest lobbying remains the most recent.)
But if there’s something we’ve missed or that looks wonky, please let us know.
The usual suspects – and a few unusual ones
Of course, the lion’s share of Uber-related lobbying was done by Uber, taxi companies, taxi license-holders and advocates for taxi drivers.
But we found some somewhat surprising companies in there, as well.
Airbnb, for example, met with the Mayor’s office in January, 2015 and had several subsequent meetings in March, May, July and November — in addition to numerous phone calls and emails exchanged in the intervening months:
We don’t know the specific topic of each of these communications. The stated purpose of Airbnb’s lobbying is “Policies to support the new sharing economy, and home sharing in particular,” according to its registration.
But at least two of its meetings, in July of 2015, were with the city’s Taxi Industry Project Manager.
“We’ve not done any direct lobbying on ridesharing,” said Airbnb spokesperson Christopher Nulty.
But “we’ve been part of events that have been focused on the sharing economy.”
2015 was a busy year
As Uber-taxi rhetoric reached a heated pitch, lobbying on the issue became similarly intense.
The biggest spikes in 2014 and 2015 appear to coincide with city council or Licensing and Standards Committee deliberations regarding Uber.
When you look at monthly totals for meetings, 2015 comes out way ahead:
Uber-busy — but can’t beat cabs combined
Which company was busiest in 2015?
Uber, by a long shot:
(Taxi Charger, a company that makes taxi cashiering software, comes in second thanks primarily to an email blitz last fall.)
If you only look at meetings, Uber still comes out ahead — but by a narrower margin.
“Since arriving in Toronto in 2012, we have had meetings with councillors, the mayor’s office and city officials as part of our collaborative efforts towards helping establish a permanent regulatory framework for ridesharing in the City of Toronto,” Uber Canada spokesperson Susie Heath said in an email.
“We are pleased with the progress to date – as you may know, in early October of last year city council voted to study ridesharing with the goal of updating regulations which they are expected to report back on in the coming months – and look forward to continuing our work with the city.
But those meeting statistics look significantly different if you put all the taxi drivers and taxi companies together:
Taxi companies aren’t terribly pleased with the fruits of their lobbying labour, however.
“So far, nothing,” says Rita Smith, executive director of the Toronto Taxi Alliance.
“Uber’s still here. The mayor has declared them illegal and said that they are outside of the law. … And no amount of lobbying that we have done or lobbyists that we have paid has budged that.”
But they don’t plan to let up: Every one of her group’s members is registered as a lobbyist, just in case they run into a councillor.
Smith wouldn’t say how much her organization has spent on lobbyists but said it’s less than Uber has spent.
“I’m not sure that I’m at liberty to disclose that … but I can tell you it represents a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of what Uber is spending.”
The Mayor’s office, perhaps unsurprisingly, got lobbied more than any other office or office-holder in city hall last year. The mayor himself had fewer meetings but was still busy — he had 17 Uber-related lobbyist meetings, putting him well above most other councillors.
“Our office meets regularly with a variety of stakeholders and those who represent them,” a spokesperson for Mayor Tory’s office wrote in an email.
“The lobbyist registry ensures that lobbying of public office holders is conducted in a transparent and accountable manner. Anyone seeking to engage with our office are required to publicly register and comply with the law.”
But Uber and taxi companies are clearly targeting different people.
Uber representatives met with Mayor John Tory’s staff more than they met with anyone else last year:
And the mayor’s staff met with Uber more than anyone else on this topic last year:
Taxi companies and their advocates, on the other hand, met most frequently with Councillor Jim Karygiannis, who has been a vocal advocate on their behalf:
It’s a lot more lobbying than Karygiannis is used to.
“Coming from my previous life as a federal member of Parliament, you did not get lobbied as much because you did not make as many decisions,” he said.
“A lot of people are coming in to see me. … It’s very informative, keeping me abreast of what Uber is doing, what Uber is up to.”
But many of them, he said, just come to vent.
“I guess somebody has to listen,” he said.
But Karygiannis blames Tory for the lack of Uber resolution.
“This whole mess … sits right at the mayor’s desk,” he said.
“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that Uber is operating illegally and yet they are thumbing their nose at all three levels of government.”
Jon Burnside, who was also among the most lobbied at Toronto city hall, is surprised he wasn’t lobbied more.
“There really hasn’t been a tonne,” he said.
“Everyone’s directing their energy toward the mayor. Which is kind of surprising, given that he only has one vote.”
How Toronto’s lobbyist registry works
Almost everyone is supposed to report almost every communication with a city of Toronto public office holder, according to the city’s lobbyist bylaw.
But there are a lot of exceptions.
Exemptions include compliments or complaints or requests for information, or communications that are part of a public meeting. You’re off the hook if you’re a member of government or a not-for-profit.
Lobbyists, not the people they’re lobbying, are responsible for registering as lobbyists and inputting information for every phone call, email or meeting. Sometimes lobbyists will contact registrar Linda Gehrke to see if they’re required to report certain activity or to register as lobbyists.
But by definition, Gehrke and her staff won’t know about lobbying activity that isn’t registered.
“We wouldn’t know to check on it,” she says, unless someone else — such as the public office-holder being lobbied — gives them the head’s up.
“In the year 2015 we had about 2,800 telephone inquiries to our office. Many of these are requests for advice about whether someone needs to register,” she said.
“Most lobbyists do want to comply and most public office holders do support compliance.
I think we’re getting a fair representation of what lobbying is happening in the city.”
And while Gehrke and her staff will sometimes spot-check lobbyist registry information to ensure it’s complete and correct, they don’t have time to spell-check every entry. As a result, Global News found, there are many spelling errors or variations in the way records are kept (for example, in how city offices are named or how councillors’ offices are referred to) that can make it challenging to quantify lobbyist communications.
We’ve done our best to streamline the information we gleaned in a way that makes sense.Follow @amp6
INTERACTIVE: Search Uber-related lobbying by date, company, office and more. Click the column headings to sort ascending or descending, or type a search term (such as your councillor’s name or ward number) into the search box.Click here to view data »