Monday, January 11, 2016

Talk about the “sharing” or “gig” economy is everywhere, especially when it comes to ride-sharing apps like Uber. For the most part public debate has centred on issues of public safety, customer service, precarious work, insurance and taxation. And rightly so. Uber’s ability to skirt regulations not only threatens to dismantle an entire sector, but also adds to the broader corporate attack on labour protections, fair taxation, regulatory systems and the future of decent work.

But one issue that doesn’t seem to get enough attention in the Uber debate is that of accessible transportation and disability rights.

Laws surrounding accessible taxis vary by municipality and Ottawa provides a good case study since the city is currently conducting a review of its taxi regulations to take into account the emergence of new business models like Uber.

Fortunately, this review includes accessibility as one of its guiding principles.

Taxis play an essential role in Ottawa’s network of accessible transportation and the city has come a long way in increasing the number of accessible taxis. The taxi by-law currently mandates that 15% of all taxicabs are accessible, prohibits discriminatory practices, and requires drivers to complete an accessible training program.

These regulations have been effective. Currently there are 187 accessible plates in Ottawa, making up 15.7% of Ottawa’s taxi fleet. Coventry Connections, Ottawa’s main taxi dispatcher, has an agreement with Para Transpo that ensures enough accessible vehicles are available to guarantee the same level of service, the same fare levels and roughly equivalent wait times for those with mobility limitations. Ottawa now ranks near the top of North American cities for the proportion of accessible taxis. This is something to be proud of.

Uber does not offer accessible services in Ottawa.

Yes, there are additional costs associated with maintaining accessible vehicles and providing accessible services, which is why the current regulatory structure provides incentives to offer such services. Uber’s entrance into the market undermines this system, not only by skewing the ratio of accessible taxis, but by placing an increased burden on licensed drivers who provide these services. Allowing Uber drivers to essentially cherry-pick the “easier” fares creates an unfair playing field, undermines Ottawa’s network of accessible transportation and negatively impacts both drivers’ livelihoods and disability rights.

It’s important that the outcome of Ottawa’s taxi regulatory review sets a high standard for accessible transportation and does not repeat mistakes made in other municipalities. Toronto, Edmonton and Waterloo’s draft regulatory proposals were either missing provisions with respect to accessible services, or simply required that requests for accessible service are referred to another provider. This is unacceptable.

Uber’s fare pricing system, which is calculated based on supply and demand, is inherently discriminatory to those with disabilities that require accessible vehicles. Without sufficient safeguards in place, the entry of Uber will no doubt lead to a decrease in the quality of accessible transportation networks, undermining disability rights.

As Canadian municipalities grapple with the regulatory struggles spurred by Uber’s illegal activities, enforcement “efforts” continue to be a colossal failure and Uber continues to expand. Great damage has been caused to the livelihood of licensed taxi drivers and a dangerous precedent has been set for regulatory systems that protect public safety, promote decent work and ensure ethical corporate practices. Let’s not allow disability rights to be the next victim of the Uber-economy.