News  Ontario enforces severe restrictions on carpooling

Proposed legislation would facilitate ridesharing

A web site that organizes carpooling in Ontario has been ordered to pay $11,337 for facilitating a $60 trip from Toronto to Montreal, under a law that could change with new legislation proposed by the Ontario Government.

On November 5 the Ontario Highway Transport Board – a quasi-judicial administrative tribunal – ordered PickupPal to pay Trentway-Wagar, a subsidiary of inter-city bus company Canada Coach, $8,500 and $2,837 to the Board for “arrang[ing] the transportation of passengers in public vehicles by persons that are not holders of an operating licence.”

The Board decided that the Ontario- and Barbados-based company’s services did not fall under the definition of carpooling – strictly defined as travelling to and from home and work, with the same people each time, inside a municipal boundary, and with payment made no more frequently than weekly – because they provided “intercity service” in which “payment is made for each individual trip,” among other reasons.

Eric Dewhirst, co-founder of PickupPal, believed that while compensation is something that is privately sorted out by those who use his service, it was never the goal of his company to create a black market bus service.

“[Trentway-Wagar has] bus routes from Toronto to Montreal. The issue is that if people are riding together they are not taking the bus,” said Dewhirst. “What Trentway-Wagar is trying to do and has done in the past is use the definition of ‘carpool’ to shut down organizations such as ourselves.”

Trentway-Wagar hired a private investigator to arrange a ride through PickupPal, who organized the $60 trip that led to the fine.

PickupPal, which operates in 104 countries, allows people to arrange carpools – like other online bulletin boards such as Craigslist, also mentioned in the ruling as facilitating “illegal commercial ventures” – but does not operate any cars. PickupPal makes money solely by advertising on its web site, dropping the seven per cent commission it charged at its inception.

Dewhirst resented Ontario’s carpool laws, which he claimed are some of the strictest regulations anywhere in North America and Europe.

“We knew going in that this was the law. Our position was that if someone wants to take us on, then we’re just gonna fight. Because the laws have just got to change,” Dewhirst explained.

These regulations have troubled other Canadian carpooling services, such as Quebec-based Allo Stop, which was ordered to stop organizing shared rides to Ontario in 2000. Dewhirst said that while he saw the grim fate of carpooling services in the past – five people died in 2000 when an unlicensed bus and minivan operator’s vehicle rolled over after hitting a median on Highway 401 between Montreal and Toronto, prompting Trentway-Wagar to hire private investigators and send out cease-and-desist letters – he felt that using the internet and blogs to publicize PickupPal’s situation could help urge Ontario to reform its carpooling laws.

Bill 118, a “green transportation” amendment to the current law, would allow car owners to drive up to nine passengers between locations once a day, and permit the driver to collect enough money to cover gas costs.

Dewhirst predicted that the law will be amended in four to six months, but regretted that time had to be spent dealing with legal issues.

“[Trentway-Wagar] did not understand our model before they took us to court…. We believe that the bus company provides a vital service, so it would’ve been cool if they talked to us first, but they didn’t.”

Bob Nichols, media spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, would not comment on the current law. However, he indicated that it is the intention of Ontario’s government to make it easier to carpool.

“Certainly the government here is committed to environmentally friendly transportation options for people, and that’s why we’re proposing [Bill 118],” he said.