Uber is now legal in Toronto. But that shouldn't create panic for the women who use the service.
Women in Toronto is a new column exploring the issues that women in the city face.
In May 2015, York Regional Police charged an Uber driver with sexual assault. After news of the crime broke, ever-quotable Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) advised women on the appropriate reaction: stop using Uber. “Women in Toronto have got to be warned, and I’m warning the City of Toronto’s women,” he said. In a similar vein, Councillor Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) announced last year that he “wouldn’t feel safe if [his] daughter or wife were to get in an Uber cab.”
Nonetheless, private ride-sharing services were legalized by the City of Toronto last week. The decision wasn’t easy for City Council: though it’s clear that Toronto’s taxi services aren’t enough, contention surrounds Uber, quantified by the dozens of taxi and Uber enthusiasts who showed up to the Council vote.
Forgotten amid an imbroglio of complaints over regulation and pricing were the concerns raised by Mammoliti and Karygiannis, no matter the implicit condescension: that hopping into a car with an Uber driver puts women at risk. Moreover—and perhaps unsurprisingly—female voices were ignored or, even worse, mocked during the majority of Toronto’s Uber vs. taxi debate.
Women’s safety, it seems, has warranted political focus only when city councillors need fodder for their greater anti-Uber campaigns.
For some people, arguments like Mammoliti’s and Karygiannis’s are convincing enough. But many women, including me, already know the dangers of navigating a big city. For years, we have taken care of ourselves—and continue to do so in the age of Uber.
That was my mindset when I used ride-sharing in Europe last year (a different service than Uber, but similar concept). It was a seven-hour drive from Paris to Cologne, and I chose the ride online that had the best mix of convenience and economy. Why wouldn’t I? These apps are, after all, the epitome of capitalist idealism. (Ask Mayor John Tory, if you don’t believe me: with Uber, “consumer protection rests in the marketplace.”)
We were only three hours into the drive—I, stuck in the backseat between two men, with another in the passenger seat—when the driver told me he was surprised. Most women, he said, were careful enough to avoid all-male rides, just in case. My four companions looked at me and laughed. The conversation continued. That afternoon, I arrived safely in Cologne, wondering whether my naïveté would eventually be the death of me.
The same attitude leads me through Allan Gardens on a late-night walk home, confident I won’t be unlucky. In reality, taking an Uber home is just as safe as walking through a dark park while using a “safe walk” location-tracking app. It won’t stop anything from happening—but if the alternative is to have no protection at all, I’ll take it.
Encouraging women not to use services doesn’t do much to protect them. In fact, similar risks exist with other modes of transportation.
I could take the TTC, under public protection. Still, a man might grope me on the streetcar as the rush-hour crowd locks me in place. Or I might run into someone hell-bent on making me learn all about the ways my clothing encourages rape.
I could hail a conventional taxi, trusting in its more regulated service and mandatory in-car camera. But a driver may decide not to take me all the way home at 3 a.m., instead charging twice the price for half the distance and leaving me, maybe not-so-sober, on the side of an unknown street to wait for a new cab.
I could simply walk along major roads. It might take a while, but it’s doable.
Usually, I end up biking. I’ve worked late nights enough times to know that biking is the safest way to avoid any harm. Worst case, I literally pedal away from the man who grabs at me. Unless he has a vehicle with him and thinks a chase is worth the trouble, I’m safe.
I have friends who Uber, and they’ve always been safe, too. I’ve read horror stories, but the worst I’ve personally heard of equivocates to a benign leer at the convenience store. The driver might stare at legs from the rearview mirror, ask about a boyfriend—nothing close to a pit stop down a dark alley.
We can’t ignore the fact that others in Toronto haven’t been so lucky. Women have accused UberX drivers of sexual assault in downtown Toronto, in Mississauga, in Markham, in Guelph. Uber may conduct background checks on its new drivers, but the business is conducted online, and it’s easy for drivers with poor intentions to slip through the cracks.
Still, Uber has the potential to help women in Toronto. Its digital features provide passengers with some reliability, basic accountability, and minimal safety. But the service should be improved to better protect its vulnerable riders. And women who are used to maneuvering a system not built to benefit them can take advantage of Uber by becoming self-sufficient drivers. A network of female drivers supporting female passengers sounds idyllic—as long as it remains choice, not segregation.
In the end, Uber is the best of bad options. Passenger safety—and women’s in particular—has not been a meaningful part of Toronto’s heated debate about Uber, but instead the pit of politicians’ patronizing remarks about women. Any further evolution of the service, either from City Council or from the company, should finally take women’s voices into consideration.