Photo by bitefight from the Torontoist Flickr Pool
You log into your Smart Commute Carpool Zone account to find someone to share your daily commute from Newmarket to downtown. You pair up with a fellow commuter, agreeing to share gas costs.
Your friend uses the new GoLoco Facebook application to find someone to share her upcoming drive to Kingston to visit friends. She pairs up with a fellow traveler, agreeing to split gas costs for the trip.
Both you and your friend (and your passengers, of course) are doing your part to reduce greenhouse gases and combat pollution by ride sharing. You’re both using third-party services to help match you up with potential passengers. And you’re both splitting the cost of the trips with your passengers. So which one of you is breaking the law?
Your friend is almost certainly a lawless ne’er-do-well thanks to a seven-year-old ruling by the little-known Ontario Highway Transport Board, a tribunal charged with regulating the arcane business of public vehicles in Ontario.
A public vehicle is any vehicle other than a taxi or carpool vehicle that doesn’t operate entirely within one municipality and that carries passengers who pay some form of compensation for the ride. Most people would associate that definition with buying tickets for an intercity bus, not with a couple of people splitting the cost of gas to travel out of town. But the Board ruled in a 2000 case against the ride-sharing service Allo Stop that any money exchanging hands—even just chipping in for gas or buying the driver a coffee—constitutes compensation for the ride and turns your private car into a public vehicle.
In the pop quiz scenario above, both GoLoco and your friend are breaking the law because they accept compensation for arranging the ride and driving, respectively, without being licensed as public vehicle operators. But wait, you’re accepting payment too. Why aren’t you and Smart Commute considered scofflaws? Because the ruling makes exceptions for completely free services like the Carpool Zone and for people who are commuting to and from work every day. And even then, the ruling—which does not appear to be available online—contains a very narrow definition of commuter as someone who travels to work “from a place in the suburbs into the city.”
Allo Stop was forced to cease arranging rides in Ontario (it continues to operate in Quebec) and was fined over $18,000, with $16,000 payable to the claimants who brought the case against it: intercity bus companies Voyageur Corp ($6,000), Greyhound Canada, and Trentway-Wagar ($10,000). Is it any wonder that they’d want any kind of competition brought to heel? The bus companies’ arguments before the Board were accepted virtually wholesale over the arguments made by Allo Stop’s lawyer.
Around the same time, the Board also ruled against now-defunct EcoRide, which had to pay $6,000 in costs to Greyhound and Trentway-Wagar. A January 2001 Toronto Star article about carpooling quoted EcoRide founder Alan Majer as saying, “It seems to be interpreted that ride sharing is illegal in Ontario.” And so it remains.
In a letter sent to Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield last week, AutoShare President Kevin McLaughlin termed the current situation “idiocy” and urged a review of the policy, saying that Ontario may be the only jurisdiction in the world where ride sharing is effectively illegal.
In an era when politicians of all stripes try to emphasize their environmental bona fides, the contradiction of discouraging ride sharing is indeed a little striking.
Why is carpooling—as narrowly defined by the OHTB—acceptable when the broader application of ride sharing is not? Could it have anything to do with the economic self-interest of the companies that brought these complaints against Allo Stop and EcoRide? GoLoco, launched in spring 2007 by Zipcar founder Robin Chase, should keenly watch its rearview mirror for approaching buses loaded up with lawyers.
Instead of navigating the legal minefield of using GoLoco, maybe your ride-sharing friend should go old school and just pick up a hitchhiker along the way. Except that’s illegal too. Oh well.
Thanks to AutoShare President Kevin McLaughlin for bringing this issue to our attention and providing background information.
Top photo by bitefight; middle photo by News46, both from the Torontoist Flickr Pool. Bottom image from the U.S. National Archives via Wikipedia.