Uber shortage in NOTL
Lesley Duthie would like to see more Uber drivers in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Lesley Duthie is an ultra-Uber fan.
She loves to dive into the controversy of the traditional taxi model versus the business model of the future, which to her is Uber - it's convenient, efficient, safe, and easier on the pocketbook than calling a cab, she says.
Duthie is now a part-time Virgil resident, having recently purchased a house here, and comes to town for weekends and holidays, working in Toronto Monday to Friday. But she's been visiting friends in Niagara-on-the-Lake for years, and recalls the many times she wanted to call a taxi to go out for the evening rather than driving and was told repeatedly, "you can't get a taxi in Niagara-on-the-Lake."
That should change with the availability of Uber rides, but not as quickly as she would like.
Duthie relies exclusively on Uber in Toronto and has had positive experiences - more so than with traditional taxis, she says.
She's never felt uncomfortable with an Uber driver, and in Toronto, the fare is usually about 50 per cent cheaper, she said.
She has a taxi stand outside her Toronto condominium, but says she would rather rely on Uber, where a driver is usually available within three minutes. She can arrange for the ride through an app on her phone and wait inside, tracking its arrival.
The one time she was able to use the service in Niagara was for a ride home from the casino in Niagara Falls - instead of a $40 cab ride, it cost her $29. She also likes that no money changes hands - her credit card is billed - and the driver, who gets 75 per cent of the fare, doesn't expect a tip.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, with its shortage of alternatives, is the perfect place for Uber to catch on, but what it needs is more drivers, she says.
And as more people become comfortable with the concept, she hopes to see more drivers coming online.
At the moment, if you're in Niagara Falls or St. Catharines, it's easy to find an Uber driver close by to drive you home to NOTL, but not so easy to find a driver in NOTL waiting to take you out, she says.
There is one who lives in St. Davids - he pointed out his home when he drove her back from the casino - but he isn't always available.
Uber spokesperson Susie Heath says drivers are currently able to pick up and drop off in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so you could, for example, take a ride from St Catharines to NOTL and vice versa - but over the coming weeks, she said, "we expect reliability to increase."
Duthie believes once people realize how easy it is to supplement their income as an Uber driver, rides will be easier to find.
Drivers choose when they want to be available, and don't have to accept a request for a ride if they choose not to.
"I work in IT," she said, "and if I was laid off for any reason, I'd drive for Uber while I looked for another job."
After a ride, passengers are asked to rate their drivers, and drivers are asked to rate their passengers - the safety issue works both ways. She always rates her driver, and she always checks ratings when she's looking for a ride, she said.
The controversy that has arisen over Uber is largely because it's misunderstood, she believes - at least in Niagara, where it's new. And because it's unregulated in the manner of traditional taxis, there is a fear that it isn't as safe.
Although it's new to Niagara, it's been around for a few years - it was founded in San Francisco in 2009 - and is very popular in major cities in Europe and the U.S. It now offers its services in more than 40 communities in Ontario.
The service works through an app on a cell phone, which allows a potential passenger to enter credit card information, look on a map for a driver near by and make a ride request.
The app estimates the time to pick-up and the fare, and when the ride is accepted, sends the customer a picture of the driver, his licence plate, and the vehicle he’s driving.
One of the issues often mentioned is insurance, but Heath says every Uber ride is covered.
"Ridesharing partners are covered by commercial auto insurance in addition to any insurance coverage maintained by the driver-partner. We also have a well-established claims process. Upon being notified (of an accident), we work with our riders or partners on properly resolving any accident claim."
Uber also conducts and pays for police and drivers' records background checks, Heath says.
To compare fares, Heath says, there is a fare estimator available online that shows how much trips would cost between different locations in the region at https://www.uber.com/cities/niagara-region.
A quick look online shows that a trip from Virgil to the St. Catharines General Hospital would cost between $32 an $42, or from Virgil to the Pen Centre $25 to $32.
Central Taxi, which sends cabs to NOTL, says the average wait for a cab pick-up in Virgil is 20 minutes. Rides from NOTL to St. Catharines are charged at a fixed rate of $35, the dispatcher said, although the meter runs and the amount can vary.
Another issue with Uber rides has been fare surges - the cost of a ride can rise if cars are in high demand, but the app will show that as well, giving the passenger the opportunity to accept the ride or not.
The other part of the controversy is the legality of using or offering a private ride service - in Ontario, municipalities, or in the case of Niagara, the region, licence and regulate taxis.
Several municipalities are looking at new bylaws that allow ride-sharing, including Ottawa, Windsor and Waterloo, trying to find compromises that allow for a more level playing field with taxi drivers who pay high licensing costs.
Hanif Patni lists a host of concerns in arguments against Uber. Patni is president and CEO of Coventry Connections, which has about 200 cab drivers working for it in Niagara under banners such as Central and NCT Elite.
Patni said the Municipal Act makes it clear regulation is required for consumer protection. Every taxi has a meter in it, to be sure everyone is charged the same amount, with the responsible municipality setting the rates.
“It means everyone is treated the same way,” he said. That regulatory framework includes “a balance of supply and demand so that people who are supplying the business are making a decent livelihood, while still providing the supply,” he said.
His other concern is “more commercial.”
“We have close to 200 families who have invested in this business and are full-time workers,” Patni said. Coventry has also plowed in more than $11 million in Niagara in investments that include acquiring taxi plates, he said.
Other add-ons include new taxi cabs, cab cameras, point of sale devices, and a new booking system, including through text messaging and a phone app, added in December.
While the Niagara Regional Police have been asked to find a local solution that works for traditional taxis as well as ride-sharers, regional council and the city of St. Catharines are also calling on the province to develop legislation that would regulate ride-sharing companies such as Uber and level the playing field for all drivers.
With files from Don Fraser, Postmedia Network