There were 3,100 fewer licensed taxi drivers in Toronto last month compared to the same time last year, CBC News has learned, and drivers say they worry about the industry’s future without some relief from city hall.
A combination of COVID-19 severely slowing business, additional cleaning costs, increasing insurance rates and competition with ride-sharing apps has led to thousands hanging up their keys, according to drivers.
In January 2020, there were 11,827 people licensed to drive a taxi or limousine with the City of Toronto. In January 2021 that number decreased by 25 per cent to 8,733.
Jahan Afzal had driven a cab for 20 years up until a few weeks into the pandemic. When the novel coronavirus hit, business ground to a halt, so he parked his cab.
“I was losing money,” the second-generation taxi driver said.
Afzal could no longer afford to pay his $1,500-a-month insurance bill or the annual renewal fee owed to the city.
The city cancelled his licence and has told him to return the plate he bought for $300,000 in 2012.
“The first investment I ever did that I put my life into,” he said. “This [plate] number is special to me — 62.”
Between last March and December, the city says it mailed 415 additional letters to taxicab owners who were already more than three months late paying their annual license renewal fee and gave them more time to pay. It cancelled 110 of those licences on Jan. 6 and provided a list of 64 plate numbers for enforcement officers to collect from drivers who are now operating without a valid plate.
‘I think it’s a little bit harsh to be [taking plates] right now,” said Abdul Mohamoud, the CEO of Co-op Cabs..
Afzal says he’s saved enough money over the last few months working at an oil change company and wants to pay his renewal fee to keep his plate, but it’s too late.
Once a licence is revoked, a driver needs to apply for a new one, but that process is currently closed, the city says.
Afzal is determined to drive a taxi again, but worries it’ll be too costly.
“I don’t know where I’m heading right now at this moment.”
Taxi fleet operating at 20% capacity
Mohamoud says the Co-op Cabs fleet is operating at just 20 per cent capacity compared with the same time last year. It has 200 cars on the road now compared to 1,100 pre-pandemic.
“A lot of drivers couldn’t make a living,” he said. “It was very difficult.”
Beck Taxi’s operations manager Kristine Hubbard says the company’s fleet went from 1,800 to 300 when the pandemic first hit, but is now back to about half.
She says while taxi drivers qualify for some government assistance, it’s not enough, adding drivers are small business owners who have not been provided the same level of support as others.
Hubbard says cab drivers transport vulnerable people and run essential errands for customers. She says they also transport people to and from COVID testing centres and are asked by Toronto Public Health to take COVID positive people to isolation centres.
“[It’s] a thankless job,” she said.
“The City of Toronto has not advocated for, not promoted, not said, ‘Thank you,’ and not invested in any of these people,” Hubbard said. “We hear, ‘Support small business.’ It seems to be for everyone except for taxi drivers.”
Taxicab owners pay $1,129.16 a year to renew their licences, which is around four times more than what the city charges restaurants and bars.
The city says Municipal Licensing and Standards has reduced licensing requirements, waived late fees and provided additional grace periods for non-payment during the first phase of the shutdown.
Jafar Mirsalari has continued to drive throughout the pandemic relying on repeat clients for the majority of his fares.
He’s also been running errands for customers including banking, grocery delivery and curbside pickup, but says business has still decreased by 75 per cent.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, he says, after being deemed essential, yet having to pay for his own personal protective equipment and cleaning products.
“We are the only essential worker who has to pay to be an essential worker,” he said.
“If our local governments don’t help our taxi industry, there won’t be any taxis left in our ‘world class city.'”
Insurance rates have jumped to up to $22,000 a year in some cases, and many companies no longer insure taxis, leaving them with few options, according to those in the industry.
City council considering reducing, eliminating fee
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 13 , Toronto Centre, says the industry is largely made up of people of colour and newcomers who have to advocate for themselves.
“One very important piece of [Toronto’s transportation network] will be missing if the taxi industry is allowed to fail and collapse because of COVID.”
As part of its 2021 budget process, city council is considering a one-time reduction or elimination of the annual renewal fee for taxis and limousines.
Eliminating 2021 licensing renewal fees would result in a loss of $10.8-million to the city this year, according to a budget briefing note.
In order to bring some relief, council has already temporarily extended the vehicle age limits so that owners and drivers don’t need to buy new vehicles this year or next.
Wong-Tam says without help from the city, she worries the industry won’t survive.
“We need to recognize them for who they are,” she said.
“They are an essential part of our transportation fleet and service.”