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Adam: Ottawa’s taxi fiasco will cost us millions but judge was right

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Adam: Ottawa’s taxi fiasco will cost us millions but judge was right

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‘Rather than continuing its partnership with the taxi industry to fight against this stronger illegal bandit taxicab company known as Uber, the city decided to abandon its partner.’

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The wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, but persistence pays. A decade after Uber burst into town and bent Ottawa Council to its will, Ottawa taxi drivers finally got the justice they had been waiting for. Their recent court victory is a salutary lesson for future councils to take their responsibilities seriously.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Marc Smith’s ruling — in favour of taxi drivers in their $215-million lawsuit against the city for its handling of Uber’s arrival back in 2014 — remedied an injustice the city had perpetrated on taxi drivers. But what is even more remarkable is the harshness of the judge’s words against the city. It not only “abandoned” the drivers and “capitulated” to Uber’s “bullying” tactics, but it allowed a “bandit” company to do as it pleased. The behaviour of the council at the time was egregious, and Smith’s ruling is as stinging an indictment as you would ever hear from a judge.

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“The City adopted a defeatist and acceptance approach to Uber’s entry into the Ottawa market,” he wrote. “A multinational giant was invading Ottawa, and because of the City’s unpreparedness and its lack of effort to develop a plan to enforce the 2012 By-law, the City’s enforcement efforts against Uber drivers were ineffective.”

The judge is actually being charitable in calling the city’s attitude defeatist. If, anything, it was wilful inaction. What the taxi drivers demanded was a level-playing field to operate the same way as Uber, but the city didn’t want to know. Who cared about the interests of a group of largely minority taxi drivers, when on the other side was a deep-pocketed and powerful multinational?

In a 2016 column as the battle raged, I wrote that the city had thrown taxi drivers under the bus, as it were, which is essentially the conclusion the judge came to in 2024. “Rather than continuing its partnership with the taxi industry to fight against this stronger illegal bandit taxicab company known as Uber, the city decided to abandon its partner,” Smith wrote.

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Uber is now such an integral part of our daily lives that people might not know or remember that when the company first hit town, it ran roughshod over the city and its taxi bylaws. The bylaws were an inconvenience Uber was happy to ignore, and for two years, from 2014 to 2016, it operated illegally. And the city was happy to allow this. For years, the city had hamstrung the taxi service with inane regulations that created a giant mess that threatened many livelihoods.

This was compounded by Uber’s arrival as the city created a two-tier taxi service, heavily weighed in favour of the ride-hailing company. The city heavily regulated the taxi industry, laying out strictures on what drivers could or couldn’t do, but allowed Uber to operate outside city oversight. Taxi drivers were restricted to fares set by the city, but Uber was not, allowing it to undercut the taxis and gain an advantage. This was the city’s idea of a level-playing field. Taxi drivers complained bitterly, but in vain. Uber had power and influence, and the taxi drivers were no match for the giant. Their own city councillors basically kneecapped them.

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When Uber arrived in Ottawa, there were four taxi dispatch companies and some 768 plate-holders, with 1,188 plates between them. But as Uber undercut the taxi industry, business plummeted, and the plates in which some drivers had invested thousands of dollars lost a significant value. The judge agreed that the plates were assets and either through acts of commission or omission, the city bore responsibility, and it would be “unconscionable” to negate that responsibility. “I am satisfied that the City caused the Plaintiffs’ damages,” Smith concluded, in siding with the drivers.

The key politicians responsible for this fiasco are no longer in office, but the lessons remain. It is now up to the two sides to agree on a fair settlement, but it is cold comfort to realize that, ultimately, taxpayers will end up paying the bill.

Mohammed Adam is an Ottawa journalist and commentator. Reach him at nylamiles48@gmail.com

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