Lobbing A Lobbying Bomb

May 4, 2016

I’m going to paraphrase about a hundred people who’ve expressed these exact sentiments, and if that makes me another Margaret Wente, so be it. cheatingIt’s a jab I’m willing to live with.

Here goes.

If all those Uber people were even half as passionate about other, far more important city issues as they are with accessing their inexpensive, on-demand, chauffeur service, Toronto would be a civic paradise.

That said, I’ve said as much as I want to say about the Uber debate. It’s already taken a disproportionately significant chunk of our local political discourse over the past couple years. Mayor Tory made it his key item to begin this month’s city council meeting yesterday, and it consumed every bit of the extended day to finish it off. For now. Always, for now.

People will argue that it’s simply a response commensurate with the demand out there for Uber. outofproportion45,000 people a day can’t be wrong, won’t be denied. A grassroots uprising breaking the death grip of the taxi industry monopoly, yaddie, yaddie.

Maybe…maybe.

Or, here’s another angle.

This Is How Uber Takes Over A City

“Uber’s made a name for itself by barging into cities and forcing politicians to respond.”

How, you ask?

A $40 billion value corporation (as of the article’s writing last June) with all the lobbying muscle that kind of money can buy.

Over the past year, Uber built one of the largest and most successful lobbying forces in the country, with a presence in almost every statehouse. It has 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols around the nation, at least a third more than Wal-Mart Stores. That doesn’t count municipal lobbyists. In Portland, the 28th-largest city in the U.S., 10 people would ultimately register to lobby on Uber’s behalf. They’d become a constant force in City Hall. City officials say they’d never seen anything on this scale.

“Uber makes the rules; cities fall in line.”

Bringing it closer to home here in Toronto, we all know that two of the mayor’s former campaign mucky-mucks, John Duffy and Nick Kouvalis, have gone to work for Uber, bullyone as a lobbyist, the other to do some polling. And it seems like there’s been a lot of Uber lobbying of the Mayor’s office leading up to this week’s meeting. According to Anna Mehler Paperny of Global News, “And the mayor’s staff met with Uber more than anyone else on this topic last year.”

But, you know, whatever. The various branches of the taxi industry are no slouches themselves when it comes to lobbying, and donating to municipal campaigns, and just generally getting this debate front and centre in a way that makes it seem like it’s the most important policy matter the city faces. It isn’t, not by a long shot. That’s just what effective lobbying does. That’s why lobbyists and lobbying firms get paid the big bucks.

None of this is news. I didn’t write and crib some 500 words to tell you something you didn’t already know. It is what it is.

Although, and here’s the kicker and the reason I wrote anything about this at all, after the Uber debate dies down, and perhaps today’s equally noisy matter of the proposed bike lane pilot project on Bloor Street gets settled, teeoneupthere’s an interesting little item going to council from the Executive Committee. It was deferred from the March meeting, and the oh-so-perfect irony of the timing of it is hard to ignore.

As part of some lobbying by-law amendments being considered, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong put forth a motion asking for a staff report on the question of forcing unions and not-for-profit organizations to register with the city as lobbyists. It’s been an idea, as Jonathan Goldsbie writes in NOW, kicking around since the establishment of the Lobbyist Registrar back during David Miller’s first term in office. It’s been given a new lease on life with the support of Mayor Tory, his deputy mayor and 9 other councillors sitting on his Executive Committee.

His [Mayor Tory] position is that there are groups that have vested interests in the outcome of council decisions that are not confined to direct financial benefit. This is about transparency, and our belief that the public should have visibility into the various groups that lobby city councillors on matters of public record.

This statement from the mayor’s office in response to the NOW article has made some of those “various groups” more than a little nervous. “STOP Mayor Tory’s attempt to force community groups to register as lobbyists. buildingawallSign this petition now!” tweeted out the shadowy NOJetsTO group who have used their deep pockets and sneaky loophole seeking ways to bully the under-resourced and hamstrung-by-lobbying-rules little guy Robert Deluce and Porter Airlines in order to stymy island airport expansion. Why? What do they stand to gain from keeping the airport just like it is?

Until they are brought to heel under the careful watch of the Lobbyist Registrar, we won’t clearly understand their motivations. We’ll just have to file it under: “not confined to direct financial benefit.”

But if I were a community group or social activist type, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though. My guess is, Mayor Tory’s eyeing bigger game, like the unions, who the motion mentions specifically. And even that may be reading too much malicious intent into it.

Maybe the mayor is really and truly trying to level the playing field for everyone down at City Hall. wolfinsheepsclothingAfter yesterday’s vote, and his and a solid majority of city council’s complete and utter capitulation to the ferocious lobbying and PR effort of Uber, he’s reaching out to give the grassroots a leg up. See? Lobbying works. Become a lobbyist. Access millions and millions of dollars to hire high-priced consultants, pollsters and glad-handers. Then, prepare to roll over your local elected representatives.

If an upstart company like Uber can do it, you can too, little group looking to… I don’t know, provide some extra affordable daycare spaces. Think big. Big Daycare.

Besides, it’s only fair. Otherwise, just anybody can drop a line or send off an email, demanding access to decision-makers at City Hall. That’s just not how things get done around here anymore.

blithely submitted by Cityslikr


Rules Of Engagement

December 15, 2015

Yesterday with the news of a new Uber launch, this one called UberHOP, a commuter service of minivans and SUVs shepherding people from 4 downtown hotspots to the financial district at $5 a pop, I found myself in yet another social media spat. As so often happens with these things, the conversation went off in directions not exactly on point to the issue at hand. I swore at somebody, fairly quickly. Everybody eventually retreated into their familiar corners. Nothing much was solved.

donnybrook

Just for future arguments, let me state my Uber stance for quick reference:

  1. I’ve never suggested Uber anything be banned. I think it should be subject to the same kind of driver and car oversight the taxi industry faces in terms of insurance, safety, background checks, etc. Whether further regulation is required in terms of things like fare rates and passenger protocol or if we just open it wide like the wild west, leaving it to the market to decide seems to me to be the legislative battle ahead. If drastic changes for the industry are in store, I do think there must be some talk of compensation to those who’ve invested under previous terms and agreements, and played by the rules in place.
  2. As for UberHOP, have at it, yo. If you want and are able to pay $5 for the pleasure of a semi-private ride back-and-forth to work, it’s a free country. Ditto your fancy limousines, rickshaws and sedan chairs. Just don’t try convincing me such a service will contribute to improving public transit in general in the city. It won’t. Solving your problem does not solve the problem. Getting people who can afford $5 a trip around the city is not the problem the TTC faces at the moment.
    sedanchairEven the TTC could turn a profit if it had the luxury of only providing service along high demand routes. Unfortunately, that’s not how effective public transit works. I don’t know how much overlap between transit and Uber users there is in the neighbourhoods UberHOP is going to service but it’s not going to free up that much space for those still opting to use the King and Queen streetcars. A solution for some is not a solution for everyone.
  3. There are already on-the-books ways in which commuting from Liberty Village, Fort York, City Place and the Distillery District to the financial district could be improved during the morning and evening rush hours without charging more for it. A service like UberHOP helps us avoid addressing those possible solutions. In fact, by putting more vehicles on many of the same streets, competing for limited road space, UberHOP might contribute to making those commutes worse for more people. Time will tell, I guess.
  4. UberWhatever is not about sharing. It’s about profit-making. That’s fine. For some, that’s what makes the world go `round. Fair enough. Just stop trying to convince us it’s about anything else. It’s not.

moneymoneymoney

helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


&%#%%& &@#@ %&%##@

December 11, 2015

Warning:foullanguage

This post may contain more salty language than usual. If you’re easily offended, click out now. I will try my best to contain myself but can’t make any guarantees.

Let’s talk about fucking Uber versus the taxi industry again, shall we? As if there’s nothing else more important to deal with other than what should be, arguably, the 4th best choice in getting around the city. Fuck.

Like I have written, I don’t know,  8 or 10 times previously, I could give a fuck about this issue in terms of policy or technology or whatever. I am in the fortunate position of having a multitude of choices at my disposal in terms of mobility. Paying somebody money to drive me around in their automobile falls pretty much way down to the bottom of the list. It is either out of sheer necessity or absolute laziness that I occasionally wind up in a cab. An after-thought or very pre-planned forethought before an early morning trip to the airport, say.

I could only wish taxis played as incidental a factor in everyone else’s life as it does mine.pottymouth1

But alas. It doesn’t. Evidently, as somehow I keep winding up talking about something I don’t really fucking care about.

So it was with Wednesday’s taxi protest which shut traffic in parts of the city down to a dead crawl. Drivers buzzed in and out of City Hall during the first day of city council’s December meeting. They threw what might be called a spanner in the works if I were writing 70 years ago for a British publication.

They came and fucked things up.

I’m not going to get into the reasons why other than the easy summary that cab drivers came to protest the lack of any serious crackdown on the illegal Uber operations going on in the city. Their sense is the city’s dragging its heels while coming up with new regulations to adjust to the 21st-century reality of what lots of people are mistakenly calling the “ridesharing” entity Uber which has rolled into town flouting a by-law or two. foullanguage1While indulging in what the taxi industry views as rather lax enforcement, the city’s helping to threaten a lot of peoples’ livelihoods which, for many, isn’t much of a livelihood to start with.

That’s a whole other fucking bottle of wax.

So cabbies took to the streets, fucked things up here and there, and didn’t some peoples’ noses get out of joint? Pretty much, How dare they! How Dare They!! Postmedia’s Matt Gurney vowed never again to use a Toronto taxicab. Oh, how will the industry survive such a blow?

By inconveniencing and annoying and generally pissing of so many people with their protest, it was deemed that taxi drivers lost the PR battle. Lose the PR battle, I guess such conventional wisdom goes, you’ve lost the PR war. Lose the PR war and…Oh, who fucking knows?!

Fuck you people and your fucking PR battles. Fuck winning your hearts and minds! Fuck Matt Gurney. pottymouth2Fuck everybody who’s ever had a bad cab ride and now hails Uber as some sort of little guy conquering hero. And fuck every one of you who can’t withstand the inconvenience of some mild civil disobedience thrown your way.

Nobody burned down your fucking house, did they? I’d like to burn down your fucking house right now. Nobody burned down your fucking house. So stop your fucking whining.

(I warned you I was going to swear a lot, didn’t I? I wasn’t lying. If you want more nuanced views about this ongoing civic disruption, let’s call it, give a read if you haven’t already of Desmond Cole’s Toronto Star article yesterday or @pangmeli’s Storify take.)

Look, nobody but nobody except for the exceptionally vested interested thinks the livery system here in Toronto isn’t seriously fucked. It has been for a while now despite regular attempts (some well-intended, others less so) to fix the problems. pottymouthMany of the solutions and the problems both have proven sticky, gumming up the works and gooily pulling in more attempted fixes until finally what we have is something of a clusterfuck pile on.

But here’s the thing, if you were so concerned about the state of the taxi industry, if it so negatively impacted your life with its terrifying rides, smelly drivers and refusal to accept anything but cash as payment, why not do something about it? Why not demand reform? Why not hold your councillor politically responsible if they did not contribute meaningfully to changing the industry? Why not organize a boycott?

Instead, you mope around, bitching about how badly you’re treated when you’re getting driven around the city, how much it costs you as if there wasn’t any other possible alternative for getting from point A to point B, until Uber suddenly appears to do your fighting for you. Illegally, it turns out. Defiantly so. But hey, what disruptive technology doesn’t skirt the rules, you rationalize. You can’t regulate the future, baby. Adapt or die. washyourmouthoutThe customer’s always right, amirite?

It’s lazy democracy, is what it is. An endorsement of lawlessness for the sake of a few bucks and a smooth ride. But when somebody steps outside the bounds of the law and gets in the way of that ride, delays your forward progress? Anarchy. Outrageous. An epic PR fail.

We deserve a few more protests like we saw on Wednesday. Toughen us up. Shake our priorities around a little. Move us on beyond thinking just about how we can get around the city in the optimum of comfort at the lowest price possible.

Fuck.

cursingly submitted by Cityslikr


That’d Be What Uber Do

October 1, 2015

I vowed not to write about Uber or cabs or taxi reform ever again. I did. Because I just don’t care. vowofsilenceI can’t muster the interest or… the energy to even finish that sentence.

But then something happened yesterday at city council which presented me with a situation I never thought I’d find myself writing. Rob Ford, Councillor Rob Ford, I’m writing, still donning his Sopranos track suit for whatever reason, stood up to ask questions of Mayor Tory, and the councillor – are you ready? – actually made sense.

Paraphrasing here, the councillor riddled the mayor this.

Does an Uber car and a taxi do the “exact same job”?

To which Mayor Tory responded: “You know full well that is a complicated question.”

To which I thought: Is it? Is it really that complicated a question?

The mayor did later admit that, yes, an Uber car and cab both provide a service of picking customers up, dropping them off where they want to go and charging for that service. How they go about delivering that service is different but it is basically the same service. yesornoThat’s really the crux of this debate.

No doubt this is pure bullshit politics on Councillor Ford’s part. Ideologically speaking, he should be an Uber champion. Down with regulation! Slash the red tape! The customer is always right! Let the market, the FREE market, decide!

But since Mayor Tory has displayed a certain friendliness to the corporation, the councillor must stand against it. You can never agree with an adversary unless it’s on your terms, unless it’s them agreeing with you. That’s just how you play politics according to the Ford doctrine.

The fact is, by every measure immediately apparent to me, Uber is a livery company, “A business that offers vehicles, such as automobiles or boats, for hire.” How you go about summoning someone to come and whisk you away to your destination, whether it’s a concierge whistle, a street corner hail, a telephone call or smartphone app, doesn’t alter the kind of business you’re doing. A livery business. A business that offers vehicles, such as automobiles or boats, for hire.

Councillor Rob Ford was right. Uber and the cab companies do the “exact same job”. liveryDoes Uber do the job better? Hundreds of thousands of Uber allies will zealously tell you it does. Is the taxi industry in this town monopolistic and in desperate need of reform? Again, hundreds of thousands of Uber allies (and general all-round not-fans of the industry) will zealously tell you, yes. Yes, it does.

I’ve got no opinion either way on that. Like I said, I can’t find two fucks to rub together to flint a spark of interest about it. That we’re spending so much time on an issue that is of such importance to people who apparently can’t make their way around this city without paying someone to chauffeur them is galling. Our sense of civics has shrunken to little more than Can I Get This Cheaper and I Want It To Be More Convenient. For me.

All politics is personal, as they say.

Whatever.

But this is what Uber does. The corporation imposes itself, city by city, sucking up all the political oxygen. With heavy lobbyist clout, it becomes important, vital, a mayor’s key item.

It’s anything but. Uber’s just another livery business, picking people up, dropping people off, charging a fee to do it. shhhhThe model may be different, it may be better. It still does the “exact same thing” any other taxi business does. Rob Ford was right.

So do the rest of us a favour and at least own it. Stop pretending it’s about anything other than that. Technology changes everything. The “sharing” economy. The 21st-century. The future! Progress!

And can we please start talking about something else now?*

 

(*Apparently not. Actual regulation of Uber, and Uber-like services won’t be put on the table now by city staff until early next year. Much more waste of time, energy and breath to come.)

unenthusiastically submitted by Cityslikr


Uber Allies

August 9, 2015

garyowens

Disruptive technology don’t need no stinkin’ regulations!

audibly submitted by Cityslikr


Technocons

November 27, 2014

So, a national newspaper columnist, libertarian and city councillor walk into a bar…

(This is going to be the biggest subtweet ever, written in blog form.)

I was following along with a Twitter exchange a couple days ago on the subject of Uber. lurkingI know, I know. More fucking cab talk, am I right? We addressed the topic last week, believing that to be the end of it from our angle of interest. But this discussion revealed some deeper ideological underpinnings to the role of technology and governance.

Stemming, I think, from an article Councillor Gord Perks wrote for the Globe and Mail, Eight reasons why Toronto should push back at Uber – note ‘push back’ not ‘ban’ or ‘rid itself of’ – the Twitter discussion developed into a critique and defense of regulation and the role government has to play in the face of new technology and innovation. For some, it seems, smart phones and the interwebz will save us from government tyranny, allowing us to go about our daily business of hailing cabs, unfettered. Who needs official oversight when you have crowd sourcing?

An old hand with all this new technology stuff, I used the Google to see if anyone had coined the phrase ‘technocon’ yet. givemelibertyApparently not, although I’m willing to accept the possibility I didn’t actually exhaust the search. Technocon is the ideal word, I believe, to attach to conservative leaning, utopian futurists who are banking on technology to eventually reduce government down to the small size they’ve always dreamed of.

I mean, seriously. If God had had a morality app, the 10 Commandments would never have been imposed on us. Users, working it out for themselves.

Such technological fetishism mirrors the kind of perfection these conservative types assign to the workings of the free market. An actual free free market. That flawless element of nature which dwells in harmony with the cosmos until touched by the damn, dirty paws of defective human meddling. Technology, like that of Uber, diminishes the need for such artificial interference in the natural process of commercial transactions. It puts the ‘free’ back into the free market.

Evidently, as consumers, our judgement is impeccable if not infallible. The customer is always right, right? Therefore, what do we need of regulation and oversight?

Technocons put pretty heavy stock in the savvy and good sense of consumers. A taxi service delivers a bad driver? Customer reviews will collectively speak and punish the miscreant, forcing both the company and driver to do better. It’s called self-regulation and user oversight. That’s never steered us wrong before. thefuture1Hell. It’s been hard at work, keeping Uber on the straight and narrow. I mean, if cheaper fares and superior convenience are really the only things that matter.

Unleashing the wisdom of the crowds, we’re told.

But then I think, don’t we already have that? A little something we call democracy. We elect people to enact laws and regulations to strike a balance between competing and various interests. It most definitely isn’t perfect. It needs constant tweaking and adjustments. Updates are always in order.

One single technological innovation doesn’t change that. Certainly a taxi app, of all things, shouldn’t be heralded as ground zero for a transformative change in governance structure. It’s new and may force adaptation by the cab industry. That doesn’t earn it space to simply disregard what’s in place, to thumb its nose at established practices. At least not without expecting, how did Councillor Perks put it? Push back.

The councillor was berated during the Twitter exchange for not being able to think outside of the old paradigm. Uber, Uber technology, he was told, changes everything, everything. Elivinginacave1verything you thought was necessary, all that old, tired ways of going about governing needed to be tossed onto the trash bin of history. To deny Uber was to deny the future. A future that looked to be a whole lot more conservative, small government leaning. Just like technocons like it.

We need to be leery of such stark, simple binary alternatives. It’s either this or it’s that, nothing in between. You’re with Uber, new technology and innovation, progress and the future or you’re standing in the mud, like a stick, stuck in the past, hiding behind the skirts of the nanny state, waiting on the corner, you’re hand in the air, hoping for a cab that’ll never come and if it does, it’ll stink of incense and the driver will ask you for directions to the place it is you want to go.

warily submitted by Cityslikr


Uber Allies

November 20, 2014

I am what you would call a late adoptor. In no way am I anti-tech. I have a smart phone. I know my way around the internets. lateadaptorMy music is all digital.

But I know I just barely scratch the surface of it all. There is so much more I could be doing, to my advantage. It just doesn’t interest me. I don’t say that proudly. It’s just a matter of fact. I use what comes easily to me. Let’s call it ‘tech lazy’. (I’m sure there’s an actual term for that I’m just not aware of.)

I know even less about the taxi industry here in Toronto. My cab trips are few and far between. One is usually around when I want it. I have no solid price comparison with many other places to know if we’re being gouged or not. My main interaction with the city’s cab happens when one nearly knocks me down or cuts me off in a bike lane when I’m riding around.

There was a big debate this past term at City Hall about taxi licensing. boring2People wearing opposing coloured shirts. I think it had much to do with who owned what kind of license or something or other. Frankly, I tuned out. Let’s call it politically lazy. Since it didn’t have much impact on my life, I couldn’t really be bothered.

So imagine my surprise, sitting here, writing something about a ‘car-summoning’ internet application, Uber, being hit with a cease and desist injunction by the city’s licensing staff for its continued disregard of taxi rules and regulations. Oh wow. Tech versus taxi. How deliciously dull.

Look. I have no reason to suspect that Toronto’s bureaucracy isn’t stodgy and slow-moving in its bid to maintain the status quo. We only have to look at something like the great food truck debate last year as proof of that. Certainly, the staff’s claim of safety concerns in seeking the court injunction ring, I don’t know, a little hollow and manipulative.

And there’s little question too that there are some very vested interests in the taxi game here in town who are well looked after as their phalanx of lobbyists at City Hall can attest to. bureacraticAn argument could be made (by someone much more knowledgeable on the subject than I am) that serious, serious reform is needed. A real shake-up might be nice.

Is Uber the one to do it?

Maybe. I don’t know. I guess we’re going to find out.

Meanwhile, they’ve been breaking the rules in conducting their business in Toronto. 35 by-law infractions, I believe it is to date. They’ve simply ignored them, and carried on carrying on. Toronto is not alone in coping with the new reality introduced by Uber. The company has tended to run afoul of the authorities in many of the places it touches down (as well as some it hasn’t even arrived at yet.)

Somehow though, the city has become the bad guy in all of this.

Even more disturbing is how, to many, the corporate titan Uber has become some sort of saviour. The necessary oomph needed to whip the bureaucracy into 21st-century shape. A righteous vigilante, stepping up, busting heads and taking questions later.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, am I right?

Fine. Renegade away. But spare me the indignation when there’s some official pushback. baretta1You want to flout the law? Deal with the fallout.

Couldn’t the city’s injunction against Uber be something other than just a luddite reaction to shut the service down and box out the future from coming? The company is clearly content to continue ignoring the law, shrugging off each and every bylaw infraction notice. Maybe the injunction is just a shot across the company’s bow. Do we have your attention now, Uber?

You know, if maybe this was some actual David and Goliath fight, I could get more behind it. If it struck me as a justifiable bit of civil disobedience that was out to right some sort of wrong, to make the lives of everyone involved – owners, drivers, customers – better, maybe I might be more sympathetic. Right now, however, it only seems like, I don’t know, more corporate disobedience. I’m a lot less comfortable with that.upyours

There’s a real strain of libertarian thought coursing through the politics of this. If we can do it, why can’t we? Who are you to tell me how, where and when I can grab a cab? Why should some bureaucrat determine what and what isn’t a taxi? Damn your restraints on innovation!

Technology trumps governance.

What the fuck is wrong in saying, look, there are rules and regulations in place here. Obviously, they need to be re-thought according to current realities. Let’s take a step back and sort through this. How can we best try to accommodate everyone’s best interests in this?

Uber doesn’t seem that interested in accommodation. As Ted Graham, “innovation leader at PWC, a professional services network”, told Matt Galloway on Metro Morning, Uber’s approach seems to be to flood a market, build up consumer demand and let the chips fall where they may. We’re here. Deal with it. Tellingly, Mr. Graham avoided answering Galloway’s question about why the onus to adapt should be on the regulators and not the company.thefuture

Because… Disruption!

Clearly the plan is working. Many have come to Uber’s defence from a consumer’s standpoint. It’s convenient. For me. It’s cheaper. For me. Why should I have to play by some company’s rules? I want this service. You can’t stop me from having this service. This is the future. You can’t stop the future.

Yeah well, you don’t necessarily have to hand over the keys to the future no questions asked. Who said the future has to be free of regulation and oversight? Grateful consumers not concerned citizens.

stubbornly submitted by Cityslikr