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Picking on PickupPal

So, your buddy just flew in from his exotic, six-month trek throughout Thailand. You’re at work when he lands, so you send your older sister to go pick him up (she owes you a favour, as per usual). She drives to the airport, picks him up, and he returns, full of coconut curry and stories of full-moon parties. He doesn’t bring back any drugs, or snakeskin shoes, but on the ride back he buys your sister a coffee to say thanks. He’s definitely just done something illegal. Can you spot the crime? We sure don’t. And neither does PickupPal.
PickupPal is a carpooling system run around the world, where the passenger submits a route request online, and is set up with a willing driver who plans on heading the same way. Through the website, the driver chooses a passenger from a list of candidates, they make a deal, and the passenger is given a ticket to ride―one which confirms the price and the destination. The service is entirely free aside from the fee paid to the driver. It’s not only economically-friendly, it’s also entirely environmentally-friendly. For a province that has created High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes (lanes which “encourage carpooling and transit use by providing a faster, more reliable alternative to driving a car alone“), invests hundreds of millions in going green, and set ambitious goals for getting rid of greenhouse gases, it would seem that carpooling would be setting its carbon footprint in the right direction. But according to the Ontario Highway Transportation Board, it’s absolutely criminal (as we’ve mentioned before).
In May, Trentway-Wagar, a bus company that enjoys the use of less-crowded HOVs, called out PickupPal for their violation of the Public Vehicles Act. The PVA states:

No person shall arrange or offer to arrange transportation of passengers by means of a public vehicle operated by another person unless that other person is the holder of an operating licence authorizing that other person to perform the transportation.

With its obvious violation of an outdated law, PickupPal is set to appear before the board on October 15th, in a situation that has closed down similar ridesharing programs in Ontario (see: Allostop, Ecoride). While other provinces can enjoy cheaper rides and less pollution, Ontario is the only place in the world to potentially deny PickupPal of their ridesharing privileges. If the law is still in place by the time of the trial, PickupPal won’t be taking on passengers anytime soon. But Canada’s former Environment Minister is backing a new petition to amend the act and protect PickupPal from a polluted, smoggy fate. You can read her plea and sign the petition online if you please. If you’re not convinced yet, maybe you will be the next time you need a ride home from the hospital… because according to the current law, having that ride home arranged for you is just downright illegal.
Photo by H4NUM4N. Thanks to Kevin McLaughlin of Autoshare for the tip.


  • rek

    What does ‘public’ in ‘public vehicle’ mean in the PVA?

  • gnille1

    This really highlights the importance of good policy development within government, as well as the need to admit something isn’t working and the willingness to go fix it. Stupid policy, stupid result.

  • DWHarrison

    I’m not sure that this a violation. As TRex asked above, it’s not clear that being paid to arrange carpools involves a public vehicle in any way. The service being performed involves arranging transportation using private vehicles. Sure, they provide payment to the driver, but any carpooling arrangement would normally involve payment to the driver to help share costs. All PickupPal is doing is formalizing the arrangement.
    It’s worth noting that for regular commutes, as opposed to one-time trips, there is a free service called the Carpool Zone provided by SmartCommute, which is part of Metrolinx. It’s at .

  • james a

    From the PVA
    “public vehicle” means a motor vehicle operated on a highway by, for or on behalf of any person for the transportation for compensation of passengers, or passengers and express freight that might be carried in a passenger vehicle, but does not include the cars of electric or steam railways running only upon rails, taxicabs, car pool vehicles, nor motor vehicles operated solely within the limits of one local municipality; (“véhicule de transport en commun”)

    Seems to this non-lawyer like there are a few grounds for TW’s claim could be rejected.. The “one local municipality” and “carpool” parts perhaps.

  • 32teeth

    does this mean that the next time i hire a mover i am doing something illegal

  • accozzaglia

    Time for creating an Ontario Transportation Clarity Act, eh? :)

  • Val Dodge

    Torontoist’s previous article on this subject points to a 2000 ruling by the OHTB that “compensation” for a ride can consist of something as little as a cup of coffee. According to the OHTB, accepting a donut (or gas money, or anything more valuable than a handshake) in exchange for taking a passenger somewhere makes your car a public vehicle. Someone else (Allostop, PickupPal, etc.) taking a few dollars to put you and your passenger together also makes your car a public vehicle. The only exception the ruling makes is for carpooling to work by employees of the same company. The ruling was not online the last time I checked, but I have a hardcopy of it kicking around somewhere.
    The intent of the law, and numerous rulings on it, seem to be to eliminate any kind of competition for the intercity bus lines. Granted, the Board can always re-interpret the law in this case, but they’ve shown no inclination to do so in the past.

  • Mark Ostler

    So are you saying that going up to the cottage with a few friends, having one of them drive us and splitting the gas cost, is illegal?

  • dowlingm

    I fail to see the violation in the first paragraph example – what compensation was offered for the ride?

  • David Topping

    There goes my brilliant “gas, grass, or ass” ridesharing program.

  • x_the_x

    Can we establish that “illegal” and “criminal” do not mean the same thing (re: But according to the Ontario Highway Transportation Board, it’s absolutely criminal). You repeat it elsewhere too and its misleading and kind of dense.
    As I said the last time Torontoist got outraged about this (see linked post, above) its designed to protect the bus companies from competition from competitors who can operate at lower costs (and, therefore, offer lower prices). Part of this is undoubtedly justifiable to offset the higher regulatory compliance and insurance costs that a bus company would have that a smaller company would not (the smaller company not being subject to any regulatory complaince at all and likely skirting the insurance issue, see below).
    But the application is stupid: the test the OHTB should apply is whether, in fact, the ride share program is in competition with the bus companies. In the case of Allo-Stop, it undoubtedly was, but from this description, it doesnt sound like PickupPal was. On this analysis, its restrictive of legitimate business activity and prevents the development of a marketplace that isn’t being served currently by the bus companies.
    I wouldn’t be surprised in the insurance of the drivers in this venture – it being garden-variety auto insurance – would decline coverage where the driver was picking up customers for monetary compensation. And I would also conjecture that the business model of the ride-share program would be obliterated if it had to bear the insurance costs. Which is, of course, kind of the bus companies’ point.
    (As an aside, can we stop assuming that one type of service is “greener” than the other based on what amounts to little more than the marketing claims of the service in question? In your example above, the guy needing a ride from the airport might have (a) taken an airport bus; (b) grabbed a cab; (c) caught a shuttle, etc. All of which are at least as “green” as the catching a ride with this service).

  • EricSmith

    dowlingm: not only is there no compensation in the example of the sister picking up the buddy at the airport, but that scenario could be occurring entirely within the boundaries of one municipality, which, even if the repayment of the favour is considered compensation, would exclude the sister’s car from the PVA “public vehicle” definition as quoted by James A., above.

  • David Topping

    I just added a clause to the intro example to make it a clearer violation of the rules (even though it’s not exactly something that it seems anyone would get persecuted for).

  • badconsumer

    So lets say I decide to help out someone who might be housebound. I go to the LCBO and pick up some wine for them. They reimburse me for the wine and ‘give me a little extra for my time’. Guess what, this is also against the law in Ontario.
    I’m sure there are plenty more examples where basic civil behaviour has been illegalised by special interest industries and overzealous bureaucrats. What is particularly sad is there is no evidence this kind of stupidity has any benefit for anybody. The government just ends up wasting their own time. A company like Trentway wager doesn’t even benefit. These rideshare programs are highly unlikely to cause enough competition for customers but they are definitely a big potential reduction in congestion. Less traffic will mean less costs for the bus fleets as they don’t waste fuel in it. I for one will never be a Trentway customer now that I’ve seen what pea-brains they are.

  • rek

    Why does the bus industry need this protection? If they can’t adapt to compete (smaller vehicles, a similar schedule/arrangement system, lower prices, etc) then isn’t it too bad for them?

  • x_the_x

    I’m no fan of protectionism and agree that the protection here stifles a legitimate marketplace that may offer advantages not covered in the existing marketplace. I believe the rationale is that the bus companies are highly regulated, not just in terms of obvious stuff like safety and like but also in terms of amount of insurance required to be held, route selection etc., things that would ordinarily be within the domain of a company’s business judgment. As I said in my comment above, these carpool services are not regulated at all, probably have inadequate insurance (what private individual has commerical passenger insurance?), etc.
    To those in this thread coming up with ridiculous examples of things that might be caught by the law (cottage rides, etc.), clearly there is a difference between a business operating in a manner which violates a law and you and your buddies sharing a ride to Wendy’s. The statute is aimed at commercial activity. Pretending you don’t see a difference undermines your argument.

  • spacejack

    I just want to know where you got all those cool little toy cars.

  • Val Dodge

    x_the_x: Part of the problem with this particular bit of protectionism for the bus industry is that Ontario is quite possibly the only jurisdiction in the world to offer it. What’s so special about Ontario that Greyhound et al need protection to operate here?
    Yes, the statute regulates commercial activity. But the statute and the OHTB both define commercial activity in this context very broadly; so much so that the ridiculous examples given in the thread, while unlikely to be prosecuted in the real world, are nevertheless quite likely illegal according to a strict reading of the statute and past rulings.

  • x_the_x

    “Pretending you don’t see a difference undermines your argument.”

  • Mark Ostler

    I couldn’t have said it better, Val.
    X: No one’s pretending there’s no difference between commercial gain and splitting gas costs on a cottage weekend, but if the statute offers no differentiation, how ridiculous is the example really? Legal matters such as this SHOULD have very explicit wording in order to avoid such quandaries.

  • x_the_x

    You will no doubt be very pleased to know that the statute does make a differentiation in the definition of “public vehicle”. Again, I can’t help you if you refuse to draw a distinction between a group of friends splitting gas money and a business operating carpool services. I’m beginning to think that you are not “pretending not to see a difference” but actually believe there isn’t one.

  • Mark Ostler

    No need to get so snarky, x. I’m not an idiot and I don’t need your help to understand that there is a difference. While definitions within the statute are clear, the opinions of those in this thread differ as to what is defined as commercial activity. If it is in fact the case that “commercial activity” is defined so broadly as to POTENTIALLY include pitching in for gas, then it’s not me who fails to see a difference, but those ruling on such cases.
    As Val Dodge stated in an earlier comment: “Torontoist’s previous article on this subject points to a 2000 ruling by the OHTB that “compensation” for a ride can consist of something as little as a cup of coffee. According to the OHTB, accepting a donut (or gas money, or anything more valuable than a handshake) in exchange for taking a passenger somewhere makes your car a public vehicle.”
    My original post (with the cottage example) was an honest question based on Val’s comment. I’m not arguing that the two uses of a vehicle are the same thing. It’s clear to all that paying someone a fee to drive you somewhere is completely different than splitting gas costs. No one profits from the latter.
    I don’t mean to beat the issue to death. I just don’t appreciate being talked down to, x.

  • rek

    That’s the only way he knows how, Mark.

  • torontothegreat

    While chime chime seems to be the only noise you seem to make…

  • x_the_x

    rek, I have ignored all your other attempts to bait me. I don’t see any reason to change that policy.
    Mark, my snark increases markedly when I am forced to repeat myself. How you read pitching in for gas as potentially commercial activity is beyond me, and yes, I have taken into account the language in the statute. Courts (or, in this case, administrative boards) don’t tend to interpret statutes in a pointedly absurb manner, and where they are overinclusive, as you suggest (though I think you are wrong), they can be read down to exclude behaviour that is inadvertently caught. There is a tendency to criticize laws on the books by citing the unfairness of their application to an extreme hypothetical to which they are obviously not aimed. I don’t think that is good criticism – it is just a distraction. As you have admitted, the prosecution risk is nil, so why are we still focusing on it?
    I have somehow been cast as an advocate for a law I disagree with. I think the carpool company should be permitted to operate. However, I do think that there are liability issues that are being skirted that might warrant some attention through other legislation.

  • Val Dodge

    x_the_x: “pitching in for gas” constitutes commercial activity because, as I wrote earlier, the OHTB said exactly that in their ruling against Allostop.
    To be clear: I’m not talking about some hypothetical future stupid ruling based on a crazy interpretation of the statute here, I’m talking about a ruling that’s already been made. I think we all agree that it’s stupid, but you seem to be alone in thinking that this 8-year-old ruling doesn’t exist merely because it’s stupid.

  • Mark Ostler

    Again, x, I’m not the one reading it that way. I took comments from Val Dodge regarding a specific OHTB ruling at face value. In my opinion, it isn’t a commercial activity, but apparently the ruling suggests that some decision makers feel it is.
    I agree that carpool company should be allowed to operate (I never set out to claim you felt otherwise) and we’re both tired of repeating ourselves, so I’m done here.

  • x_the_x

    … and we’ve come full circle, Dodge. You are pretending you don’t see a difference between a commercial enterprise where users pay their way by splitting gas money (allostop, and the decision you quote) and a bunch of friends sharing a ride and making the car owner whole for the experience. Splitting gas money is correctly termed a commercial activity in the former because otherwise the commercial enterprise could get around the law by accepting non-cash consideration. You are brighter than this.

  • Val Dodge

    X: I see a difference. The decision doesn’t.

  • Gauldar

    Came across this today in another blog. Here are the case results.