TORONTO – Toronto taxi drivers ignored Mayor John Tory’s pleas to abandon their traffic-snarling protest Wednesday, continuing to block at least one major downtown intersection Wednesday evening.
As many as 2,000 taxis converged on downtown Toronto, driving as slow as five km/h on major roadways en route to city hall in a protest against the city’s stance on ride-hailing service Uber.
The protest paralyzed downtown traffic, even impeding ambulances around the hospitals on University Avenue.
Tory condemned the protest as “dangerous and disruptive,” and asked drivers to call off the protest before the afternoon rush hour.
He encouraged drivers to continue protesting at City Hall but leave traffic unimpeded, a plea that apparently fell on deaf ears as cabs continued blocking the nearby intersection of Queen and Bay streets.
“The point has been made,” Tory said. “I don’t think it was made in a necessary or appropriate manner, but the point has been made.”
Police Chief Mark Saunders said police are allowing protests to continue, but said Wednesday’s tactics are self-defeating for tax drivers.
“I’m strongly suggesting that the taxi industry change their playbook,” he said. “If they’re looking for negative attention that’s whats happening right now. I understand the frustration, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to dismiss that, but there’s a proper way of going about it.”
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Saunders expressed concern with the ensuing tension resulting from the protest, including one incident that saw a furious cab driver pound on the windows of an apparent UberX vehicle, then hang on to the door as the car sped off.
“I understand that people are desperate, that people have a lot of passion around this subject, don’t let that passion let you make stupid decisions.”
Tory tweeted late Wednesday that he would be meeting with Saunders to discuss a possible resolution with the protesters.
Beck Taxi spokesperson Kristine Hubbard said the company told drivers “not to participate in anything that would cause any real disruption,” but also laid some blame on the city, saying drivers feel they have no other way to make their message heard.
“I don’t think that the taxi industry is to complete to blame for this,” she told Global News. “We have to look at where’s the leadership been on this file.
“Everyone has acknowledged that [Uber is] not operating outside the law, they’re breaking the law and it calls into question our entire regulator system, especially when it relates to safety.”
One protesting driver who gave his name as Jamshid said cab operators want a single law that’s uniformly enforced.
“We are not anarchists, we are not here to upset the people, we are not here to give a hard time to the other motorists,” he said. “Our point is very simple; there is one city, there should be one law for whoever gives a service to the public.”
Tory emphasized that the city is working on new regulations “to create an equitable playing field,” and said the city would unveil them this winter, although didn’t name a specific date.
“We’ve been working in this industry so many years and this is our livelihood. We play by the rules and it’s a regulated business,” said operator Bozlul Kabir who is urging city officials to shut Uber down completely.
“UberX don’t have any insurance. They don’t have any licence. They don’t have any rules they follow. They are stealing our business.”
Uber spokesperson Susie Heath said the traffic disruption caused by the protest is counterproductive and “open collaboration is the best path forward.”
“Rather than blocking the roads and causing fear and frustration, we believe that open collaboration is the best path forward – our focus remains on working with city officials to update regulations that allow for innovation in Toronto which will benefit everyone in the ground transportation market,” she said.
In October, Tory said that while Uber is operating outside legislation, it would be impractical to devote the police and bylaw attention necessary to shut it down entirely.
In Calgary, Uber has suspended its service after a judge approved a temporary injunction and taxi drivers in Toronto hope for the same outcome here.
A report released last month by the federal Competition Bureau said local and provincial governments should remove restrictions on the number of taxi licences they grant to drivers, allow people anywhere to hail rides from the curb and offer surge pricing, which Uber now uses to charge more at times when there is greater demand.
Demonstrations against Uber in Toronto have been taking place almost weekly since the city announced it was going to develop new regulations for the ride-sharing service.
Just last week, several taxi drivers staged a three-day hunger strike and hundreds of demonstrators marched around city hall on Friday chanting the phrase “Uber must go.”
With files from Erica Vella, Lama Nicolas, David Shum and The Canadian Press