Taxi By-law Brouhaha

I watched the (rather heated) debate that took place on February 28 during a Public Hearing on the municipality’s proposed new Passenger Vehicle for Hire By-law, intended to replace the existing Taxi By-law.

I want to do three things this week: consider the issue that has some taxi owners all riled up; look at the effect the new by-law will have on ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft; and (for wonks only) provide a timeline for the new by-law, for reference purposes.

The meter’s running, so let’s get started. First up, the bone of contention.



The revamp of the CBRM’s Taxi By-law did not happen overnight—council called for a staff review of the regulations in November 2019, a working group was struck to do the review in June 2021, the group’s recommendations were presented to council in July 2022 and a draft of the final by-law, now called the Passenger Vehicle for Hire By-law, came to council in  January 2023.

Paul Burt

Paul Burt

Paul Burt, the municipality’s manager of building, planning and licensing laws, has been keeping council (and the rest of us) abreast of the working group’s progress because somebody had to—the group didn’t meet in public; if it kept minutes of its meetings, it wasn’t required to make them public; and I asked for a list of its members three days ago and have yet to receive one. Having re-watched Burt’s various presentations to council, I can say that it wasn’t until January 2023 that the issue of jurisdiction was raised, but the issue of jurisdiction is what’s set the fox among the chickens.

Presenting the working group’s draft recommendations in July 2022, Burt assured council that taxi owners, represented in the working group by Sheila Penney, owner of Bud’s Taxi in Glace Bay, and Len MacIntyre, then-owner, operator and dispatcher of Crown Taxi, Sydney Mines (and winner of a Governor General’s Award for Bravery), were completely in favor of the changes which were “not controversial at all.”

But during that February 28 public hearing on the draft by-law, Penney was one of its loudest critics, along with City Wide Taxi owner John James (Jim) Donohue.

Sheila Penney

Sheila Penney

The crux of the matter is whether a taxi company may operate in more than one service district without having a dispatcher in each. Penney says she was told by the CBRM, when she bought a second cab company three years ago, that to operate in two districts she needed a dispatcher in each, which is why she decided to merge Bud’s Taxi and Bay Taxi.

Donohue expressed the same belief, saying he and Penney and other operators have been providing 24-hour dispatch within their service areas and could not understand how a “new company” (unnamed, but clearly Preferred Taxi and Transport, the cab company Sydney businessman—and Spectator favorite—Craig Boudreau formed after buying three local cab companies, Dynasty, Crown and District 11 Taxi in 2022) wasn’t required to meet the same condition.

But Burt maintains that Penney simply misunderstood what she’d been told and that the by-law never required multiple dispatchers, although he did allow there had been “some confusion and some interpretation over the old by-law, which is why we did clarify some of the wording but we didn’t make a substantial change to the by-law.” (The “we” there is interesting, because presumably he means the working group, and Penney was part of the working group. If he doesn’t mean the working group, then who is he talking about?)

Here’s what the old Taxi By-law says about “jurisdiction”:

Definition of "jurisdiction" from CBRM Taxi By-law.

And here’s what the proposed Passenger Vehicle for Hire By-law says (I’ve highlighted the key clause):

Jurisdiction section of proposed CBRM Passenger Vehicle for Hire By-law, 2023.

Burt considers this to be a “housekeeping item,” a clarification of the existing wording, but if taxi owners believed (or were, in fact, told by the CBRM) that they needed a dispatcher in each district they served, I can see why they’d consider it a big deal.

What I cannot understand is why this matter would not have been given a thorough airing during the working group sessions—the group met, after all, “almost monthly” for a year. How could Penney, who was part of that group, have been blindsided by Burt’s “clarification?”

Penney clearly believes the change was made to help he who remained nameless during the public hearing, but who appeared in the Post on March 4 denying he’d been given special treatment, Boudreau.


Super Company

District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie was the only council member in the working group (after the July 2022 presentation of the group’s  recommended amendments to the Taxi By-law, he commended Penney and MacIntyre for their “terrific work” on behalf of the taxi owners) and he tried to shed some light on the jurisdiction controversy during the public hearing, suggesting that what had happened was that “a businessperson” had gone through the by-law and “realized there was a loophole or a way to do business in the other areas, and not have to have a fully operational, 24-hour-a-day depot.”

Steve Gillespie

Steve Gillespie during November 2019 CBRM council meeeting.

That, you have to admit, is a somewhat different explanation from, “The by-law has always permitted companies to operate in multiple service districts with a single dispatcher.” Gillespie is acknowledging that the by-law may have permitted this, but that wasn’t how it was interpreted in practice. (Also, he was part of the working group, and he didn’t make any reference to its having discussed the issue.)

Gillespie’s explanation seems to be correct. Boudreau, vice-chair of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce, owner of downtown office rentals, parking lots, fast-food outlets, a sign rental company, an empty lot destined for greatness and now, a cab company, registered Preferred Taxi and Transport in November 2022, meaning, as the by-law revision was happening. The purchases of the three existing cab companies must have happened in the past year, as the changes in ownership have yet to be recorded in the registry.

Donohue told council that Boudreau’s company was dispatching for three service districts out of Sydney but Boudreau assured the Post on March 4 his company was “following the municipal bylaw to the letter”:

“We’re not looking to battle with anybody. We’re following all the rules and that’s all we’re doing,” he said.

“We worked very closely to make sure that we were onside with every bylaw, and believe me, nobody gets any favours. We’re not some super company that got all these favours — none of that happened.”

So Boudreau was “working closely” (presumably with the CBRM) to ensure his operations were within the by-law even as the by-law was being reviewed. Moreover, he was, by his own account, receiving assurances that what he was doing was permitted—and, in fact, the by-law was revised to make this clear. And yet Sheila Penney, who sat on the working group, was taken by surprise when she heard that what Boudreau was doing was perfectly legal according to the by-law she’d helped review?

That’s some premium-grade miscommunication, even by CBRM standards.



In January 2019, the owners of District 11 Taxi, Chuck Ogley and Elizabeth Doyle, told the Cape Breton Post the CBRM was harassing their drivers and threatening to shut down their business.

But Paul Burt told the paper District 11 Taxi was not operating in accordance with the Taxi By-law, citing a number of violations including the lack of two-way radios. District 11 Taxi was using a “digital system” which I assume means an app.

Burt told the paper the digital system didn’t fit the current bylaw, but added that “anyone can take steps to request an amendment to a bylaw.”

A few months later, in November 2019, Councilor Gillespie, seconded by then-District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes, moved that CBRM staff review the Taxi By-law, with Coombes describing the regulations as “antiquated” in a number of ways including its “flexibility” around new technology.

It wasn’t until June 2021 that staff got the ball rolling on the review. Burt blamed the delay on COVID and the 2020 municipal elections, but he also cited a request from a businessperson for amendments to the Taxi By-law as the immediate impetus for the review. The unnamed businessperson (I really have no idea who it was, District 11 was using an app and Boudreau’s company is “beta testing” an app, but this application could obviously have come from anyone) requested the following changes:

Requested amendments to CBRM Taxi By-Law, 15 June 2021The only item that elicited a question from council was the hatchbacks, although it was the other three items that were significant enough to require a review of the entire by-law.

The working group ultimately recommended that council allow for “different dispatch options” but did not eliminate the service areas or allow the use of software to “calculate rates” (more about that when we discuss ride-share apps).


Rideshare apps

As noted above, the impetus for the review of the Taxi By-law was a request from a businessperson who seems to have been contemplating the launch of a “rideshare” company like Uber or Lyft in the municipality.

There are apparently, in 2023, still people out there prepared to argue that these app-based companies are good for “competition” in the taxi industry but I am not one of them and I was not disappointed to hear Paul Burt state clearly that he considers Uber and Lyft to be taxi companies that will be regulated as such in CBRM.

My thoughts about the rideshares have been heavily influenced by critics like Paris Marx but, also, I like to think, by common sense, which tells me that using an app instead of a two-way radio doesn’t make you a tech company, it makes you a taxi company with an app.

Taxi drivers in the city of Rio de Janeiro hold a large demonstration against the Uber in front of the Monument to Pracinhas, in Flamengo Park, 2015.

Taxi drivers in the city of Rio de Janeiro hold a large demonstration against the Uber in front of the Monument to Pracinhas, in Flamengo Park, 2015. (Photo by Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons)

Speaking of apps, the request to allow them “calculate rates” caught my eye because it made me think of “surge pricing” (which Burt said would not be permitted) but which is one of the algorithmic carrots used by Uber to control where and when and how its drivers (whom it insists are not employees) work. As Andrew Wolf, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explained in Jacobin:

Algorithmic management, including the important star rating system, employs data tracking of drivers to generate a system of sophisticated push notifications which “nudge” drivers on how to “improve.” Surge pricing nudges drivers where to go, the rating system nudges drivers on how to behave, and push notifications nudge drivers to keep working. If drivers don’t maintain a high star rating, they can wake up one morning to find out they have been kicked off the app.

(I’ve also read that there’s one app for drivers and another for customers and Uber drivers are not permitted on the customer app because the company doesn’t want them comparing what the customer is paying to what the driver is earning.)

We regulate taxis because we want to be sure the cars we get into are safe (for us and the drivers), that drivers are properly licensed and that companies carry sufficient insurance in case of accidents. Why we don’t care about any of this when it comes to rideshare companies is something of a head-scratcher.

Especially when, as Marx says, these companies haven’t lived up to their hype:

Uber was supposed to reduce car ownership, cut traffic congestion, make mobility more accessible for underserved communities, allow its drivers to make a good living, and be complimentary toward transit services — or so [CEO Travis] Kalanick claimed. It only took a few years for all the big promises to be revealed as overly ambitious at best or outright lies at worst.

Uber’s real impact has been to make life worse for virtually everyone it touches. A series of studies have found that the company made traffic worse in major cities, did little to affect car ownership, took passengers away from transit services, and increased trip emissions. Meanwhile, it decimated the conditions of existing taxi workers and squeezed its own drivers (who mainly hailed from marginalized communities) to disproportionately serve affluent young people living in cities.

Taxis, I’m coming to realize, occupy some strange space in the transit ecosystem between private and public. I don’t mean to say they are funded by the public sector, because clearly, they’re not, but cab drivers are considered “ambassadors” for the municipality, which is why even the new by-law concerns itself with their dress and “hygiene.” And there’s a 24-hour service requirement in place because public transit, where it is available, is not available around the clock, but the municipality wants people to be able to get around after hours or outside its transit service area. And the police want 24-hour service so that people leaving bars can call cabs instead of driving under the influence.

Basically, in return for a license to operate in our municipality, cab companies are expected to give something back—something that could actually be termed public service.

I haven’t had time to think this through properly because it’s honestly only in poring over the Taxi By-law that it’s occurred to me, but isn’t this a kind of precedent for asking other companies to do the right thing? Like, making developers offer a certain number of (truly) affordable units? Just a thought.


Next steps

The February 28 public hearing got so hot that council decided to send the by-law back to the drawing board instead of approving it on second reading.

Burt suggested he meet with cab company owners to go over their questions and the possibility of getting the band back together (I mean, recalling the working group) was also floated.

Planning Director Michael Ruus suggested that if what council is saying is that it doesn’t want cab companies or rideshare companies to operate in multiple service districts, it should make that clear.

The by-law should be back on the agenda during the regular April meeting of council.

(Featured photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia Commmons)