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Local driver receives cease and desist letter from the city

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

Mehreen Shahid/The Packet & Times
Derick Lehmann has been told by the city that driving an Uber goes against the taxicab provisions in the municipal code.

Mehreen Shahid/The Packet & Times Derick Lehmann has been told by the city that driving an Uber goes against the taxicab provisions in the municipal code.

Need a lift from Point A to Point B in Orillia? Better delete the Uber app on your phone.

It was a unwelcome start to 2017 for one of the city's Uber drivers, receiving a letter from the city's legislative services division ordering him to cease offering rides to paying customers.

While Derick Lehmann would be risking a charge if he continued to operate as an Uber driver in Orillia, the real losers in this scenario, he said, are consumers.

"This isn't just about taxis and (me) driving my personal vehicle and giving people rides," he said. "To me, the fallout is for consumers. If they restrict Uber drivers from driving around in Orillia, I just see it as another slap in the face to consumer choice."

Lehmann started driving Uber in his 2017 Denali last summer. He's offered the service sparingly throughout the fall and winter, as it is not tremendously popular in the city just yet, he said. But when business was good in July and August, he found 90% of his customers were out-of-towners, with many being picked up at the Port of Orillia.

His troubles started in December, following a posting on an Orillia buy-and-sell Facebook group. Lehmann posted a promotional code to the group's page that anyone could use to receive their first ride with Uber for free, up to $15. After some initial positive feedback, the posting soon devolved into a bevy of negative comments, with those for and against Uber sharing their opinions, with minimal attention being paid to the opposing viewpoint.

As much as some of the comments were "non-sensical garbage," in the eyes of Lehmann, he found himself on the side of those supporting the taxicab companies on several points, particularly when it came to how much money cab companies and cabbies are required to pay each year.

"I think the licencing costs in Orillia are ridiculous," Lehmann said.

The city charges $500 for a taxi broker licence and $250 for a vehicle licence. A taxi driver's licence is $108. In 2016, there were three taxi brokers in Orillia, with approximately 35 vehicles and 100 drivers.

The letter Lehmann received stated that an Uber would be considered a taxicab under Chapter 725 of the Orillia Municipal Code. It is against city code for anyone to operate a cab without a taxicab driver's licence, any owner to not have a taxicab vehicle licence and any company offering taxi services to have a permanent office in a properly zoned area.

"When we think of the existing taxicab companies in Orillia, they are kept to a high standard," said Shawn Crawford, manager of legislative services. "The purpose of that is to help ensure the safety of the passengers."

The city requires drivers undergo criminal record and vulnerable sector checks, along with vehicle safety checks every five months, signage and lighting and a permanent stand, Crawford said. Lehmann has gone through a similar process with Uber when he signed up to be a driver, including checks on his vehicle and criminal record. He also carries his own automotive insurance, as well as liability insurance through Uber. He was not required to complete a vulnerable sector check for this position, but said he had one done for an unrelated role.

The taxi bylaw comes up for review when requested. Just as Lehmann was investigated for a bylaw infraction on a reactive basis, the bylaw itself is examined when situations are brought to staff's attention by either residents, business owners of city councillors. The most recent revisions took place this summer, regarding insurance.

The letter Lehmann received suggested he write a letter to the mayor and council if he wanted councillors to consider permitting Uber in the city. While it's a matter he'd like council to look at, he hasn't decided what his next steps are. He may not be willing to flaunt the law for a few Uber fares, but he's yet to be convinced the service he's offering is actually prohibited under the current bylaw.

"It's a peer-to-peer transaction," he said. "In my eyes, I almost see it as a Kijiji-style kind of transaction. You're selling a service, privately, one-on-one."

The differences between taxis and Uber will have to be considered by staff. If the city moves to make any changes to its taxicab bylaw - and no requests to regulate app-based taxi services have been received as of yet - it could look for a compromise that is fair to all parties while looking out for the most important part of the equation.

"If council directs staff to review the feasibility of an app-based taxi service, safety is obviously going to be the prime consideration," Crawford said. "Can we permit this type of business, but still maintain those safety standards that we currently have in place? Because that's the main reason we licence the existing taxicab companies."

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