“We’re going to the liquor store,” says a muffled voice in the background over the phone, “But first, I need you to take me to the bank just up the street here.”
The hum of passing cars rises unexpectedly every few seconds, interrupting the conversation. “Okay, Okay,” says Bahrezghi Tesfay as he listens to the instructions from the backseat. The intermittent sound of the blinker echoes on as he navigates the car. His voice remains steady as he speaks to me over the speaker phone, drives a moving vehicle through busy streets and talks with his customer. He is clearly comfortable in this role.
Called a “steward of the city” by Beck Taxi operations manager Kristine Hubbard, Tesfay is a Toronto taxi driver.
Tesfay works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. From eight in the morning to eight at night, he does precisely this: listens to where people need to go and takes them there, carrying on conversations if he senses interest from the backseat.
Hubbard’s admiration of taxi drivers like Tesfay, who are part of the “fabric of our community,” is shared by Rita Smith, the publisher of Taxi News. Smith has been reporting on the industry for 30 years and describes taxi drivers she knows as a community of people with patience, a sense of humour, a serious work ethic and optimism. As an example, Smith brings up Jafar Mirsalari, who she’s known for years as “the bomb.”
A former high school teacher in Iran, Mirsalari is a husband and father with many skills, one of which is expertly wending his way around Toronto’s streets, which he’s been doing in his taxi since 1988.
“I can drive around with closed eyes; I mean, one eye closed, not two,” said Mirsalari through a laugh that starts as a rumble and then suffuses his whole body.
With 35 years of experience in the taxi industry, Mirsalari witnessed many changes: from adapting to the use of pagers, experiencing the consequences of open entry into the industry, (when the City of Toronto did not cap the number of taxi plates available), to learning how to get around before Google Maps before cell phones became ubiquitous.
However, among many industry shifts, one stands out as the most consequential.
“The biggest and worst threat and danger to the industry was allowing Uber into the city,” says Mirsalari as his voice grows louder, the laughter gone.
In 2012, the ride-share program came to Toronto, introducing not only a preferred method for transportation for riders but a damaging and lasting impact on the local taxi industry.
“Uber dropped like a bomb”
Uber Canada provides ground transportation with a few clicks on your mobile device. Upon giving a pickup location and a desired destination, a car and driver will arrive to take you where you want to go. The mobile ordering app or website uses GPS to identify the exact pickup whereabouts, making getting a ride almost effortless in large cities. Although the system resembles that of a traditional taxi service, in the sense of paying for a drive by distance, since its start in Toronto going on 10 years ago, Uber Canada has overtaken traditional taxis in terms of popularity.
A 2012 report by the City of Toronto on its taxicab industry, had overall highly positive findings. The results, from over 100 interviews across the GTA and 100 mystery riders, where a researcher posed as a rider, showed that most found Toronto taxicabs were well maintained, available, and had knowledgeable and professional drivers.
A 2014 study by Forum Research, a Canadian market research and polling firm, is the most recent data on the Uber and taxi experience. The study randomly took the opinion of 950 Torontonians and found that over one-half of Uber riders categorized the experience as “much better” than a taxi. The study showed that after Uber arrived, the service became more highly regarded than taxis, especially among the younger and wealthier segments of the population.
The two ride services work similarly for a customer: a car is hailed or booked, a destination is provided and a driver takes you. The difference arises in the operational end of the services, where things work quite differently.
In a 2017 publication by York University professor emeritus Erik M Tucker, he writes that Uber recruited drivers who did not own or lease a taxi license, allowing them to bypass municipal taxi regulations. Tucker explains that a 2016 bylaw did “lightly” regulate Uber but also ended an attempted taxi owner-operator model. The previous plate owner model was one that many depended on for its higher value, says Smith, who explains it could be sold, willed to children or leased in retirement.
The Toronto Vehicles-For-Hire Bylaw of 2022, says that any private transportation companies (PTC), like Uber, must have a license from Municipal Licensing and Standards.
In other words, Uber was able to sidestep important protocols that taxi drivers were not. Mirsalari can quickly list the regulations he must follow as a taxi driver in the city, from semi-annual inspections to having the right equipment, police background checks and insurance.
A New Narrative
“Uber came in with a narrative that taxis were dirty, and the drivers were smelly, and they were rude and cranky, and people didn’t like them,” says Smith, who, after all her years working in the industry had never heard the kinds of harsh complaints about taxis before Uber arrived.
Understanding how Uber became so favoured can be at least partially to the public relation campaign launched by Uber against the existing taxi industry according to Smith
“It was insulting to the [taxi] drivers, it was insulting to people who had dedicated their entire life to the industry,” says Smith.
Smith’s belief that Uber constructed a damaging narrative is a central point made in the Uber Files: a global investigation of over a hundred thousand records and thousands of emails connected with the company between 2013 and 2017, leaked to The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The Uber Files uncovered how Uber got around laws and regulations, lobbied government officials and discussed leaking violent incidents to the media partly in an effort, “to grind into submission the taxi industry.”.
While the investigation primarily surfaced Uber interactions with countries other than Canada, Toronto was not untouched. In 2022, the Toronto Star published a story that included information about Uber lobbyists who had contacted Toronto city officials and council members over 4,000 times since 2013.
The people with their own narratives
The impact of all this is most acutely felt by the people who make their living, support families, and take pride in their work. Taxi drivers work long hours and often more than five days a week, but there is much more to their lives outside of the driver’s seat.
Manohar Gahlon has spent 30 years driving a taxi in the city. Working six days a week for 10 to 11 hours at a time. He says he makes half the money he once did and has felt more pressure since Uber came. Gahlon says he and many other of his peers feel unsupported by the government who did not enforce the same rules for Uber that they did for taxis. While most of his days are in the car, his life is very much outside of it. He has a wife, and two kids in university. His son, who studies electrical engineering and his daughter who’s in nursing, will start to text and call him whenever he’s not home on time.
Ghalon is dedicated to his family and looks forward to a good dinner with them after work.
“If my wife has to go somewhere, we go together,” he says without hesitation.
For Mirsalari supporting his family is the reason he works so hard in the taxi industry. They’re part of his motivation and the people he happily comes home to. After a workout and shower, Mirsalaris’s wife always has a healthy dinner awaiting him. She specializes in homemade Persian-style food like basmati rice, kebabs, BBQ chicken, eggplants, fish, and lots of vegetables and fruit. She even packs his lunch which he grabs before his 2 a.m. departure from home.
Tesfay also has family top of mind. He works to support two children and his mother with whom he lives.
“She asks me to get stuff, and I go get what she wants,” says Tesay, who describes trips to NoFrills for onions, meat and lentils for the traditional Northeast African food his mother prepares. From ensuring she has the groceries she needs to getting her a bus pass so she can go to church during the week, he ensures she’s taken care of, and she does the same for him.
“You know injera?” asks Tesfay as he describes the various meals he comes home to. It’s a sour pancake-like bread his mother makes with toppings that are “Spicy, hot and spicy, all the time.” Just the way he likes it.
Mirsalari has found purpose in his work, where he has created decades-long relationships with customers, sometimes taking one to the dentist, waiting an hour and then driving her home; yet the rising popularity of Uber has angered him. He explains that as Uber flooded the city “Drivers cannot afford to put a car on the road anymore; they cannot afford to pay the insurance since there is not enough business for them.” The city let down the drivers who put in the work, did the training and are professionals, and “anybody can drive people around in a Toyota, glued to the phone and following the instructions of Google Maps,” he says.
Tesfay explains that because of the numerous regulations for taxi driving, more and more people switch to being Uber drivers instead. Despite this, Tesfay says he is staying in his taxi cab and so is Mirsalari, who remains dedicated but feels the loss of the people who have left for Uber.
Mirsalari treats his work as more than just work; it’s a chance to help people. He knows the area where his regular clients are like the back of his hand, and street names pour off the tongue like another language as he explains his driving routes. From the 89-year-old who he takes to get her nails done, to the doctors, teachers, and waitresses he drives around, he is there for them and has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“I take care of them on a daily basis,” he says, as he describes his calendar with a ride to Oakville, Ont. booked in June with one of his regulars.
Tesfay as well, says he will continue to work, his voice clear over the phone en route to the liquor store at his customer’s request.
His customer’s voice grows louder as they provide more explanations, and the sounds of cars around him increase. Tesfay’s voice becomes drowned out.
“Sorry I have a customer,” he says loudly over the noises as the blinker seems to quickly pick up speed, “Okay, I’ll call you,” he adds abruptly. The line cuts out, and Tesfay drives on.