01/15/2015 06:04 EST | Updated 03/17/2015 05:59 EDT

As Uber recruits in Hamilton, city warns of legal action

Popular ride-sharing service Uber took the first concrete step towards operating in Hamilton as the company held an open house Wednesday to help potential drivers fill out applications. 

Meanwhile, the city of Hamilton warned legal action could follow if the company goes ahead without following certain rules for taxis. The conflict is not unusual for the company, which has been seen as a disruptor of traditional taxi service and expenses.

Uber planned two sessions Wednesday at the Hilton Homewood Suites on Bay Street for applicants who had questions or sought some help filling out their applications to work for the company. Would-be drivers were asked to begin the company's background check process, and to bring along materials including valid driver's licenses, insurance and photographs of their 2005-or-newer car's backseats. 

While the company has "no definitive plans at this time" to open up in Hamilton, Uber spokesman Xavier Van Chau said the sessions will aid the company in "analyzing the market" and determining how the service could fit in here.

- Hamilton moves to open fact-finding discussions with Uber 

That maximum age of the car may prove just one of the points of conflict between Uber and the city of Hamilton. The city has taken a position that the ride-sharing company is a taxi business and therefore must comply with city taxi bylaws and regulations — including that cars be no older than six years. 

Uber is scheduled to meet with the city next week to discuss how its presence here would have to work to comply with municipal law. 

The company is looking forward to the change to have "collaborative" conversations with the city, Van Chau said, to "speak about the benefits of a platform like Uber, how it responds to needs and the value of transportation alternatives."

Van Chau cited a common Uber position, that the company is a "technology company, not a taxi company." Where a taxi company may hire drivers and own cars, Uber says it operates the platform — a smartphone app — for connecting drivers who can share a ride with a person who needs that ride, and facilitating the exchange of the fee for that ride. 

Ahead of next week's meeting, the city's city's director of licensing​, Ken Leendertse doesn't see the difference.

"You're picking up people for hire, taking them from transportation point A to transportation point B," Leendertse. "That's a taxi. You can try to paint it any way you wish; it still falls within the scope of municipal bylaw." 

The city has not shared its position directly with Uber but spokeswoman Ann Lamanes said the city's position has been evident in media coverage. "Without the proper licensing they would be in violation of city by-laws and would not be allowed to operate," Lamanes said.  

Uber, based in San Francisco, is in the midst of a broad expansion throughout Canada and the U.S. It’s already in Montreal and Toronto. Toronto is seeking a Superior Court injunction to stop the service from operating there, citing similar municipal bylaw concerns. Hamilton said it is monitoring that case in Toronto.

'The City of Hamilton is prepared to take legal action'

Uber Toronto head Ian Black told a civic group in that city in December the company planned to be "more humble" going forward, but will still not comply with the city's taxi regulations, according to The Globe and Mail.

Among Hamilton's requirements for taxi drivers: a mandatory training program, increased insurance, snow tires from December to March, installed cameras and an emergency lighting system. The city said the company would also need to provide accessible vehicles.

Uber's Van Chau said the company shares the city's pursuit of safety. He pointed to features like the digital receipt showing a rider's route, the driver's name and license plate number, and a trackable ETA that help foster "personal accountability between the rider and the driver" using the features of the app. The company requires background and vehicle checks before a driver can register.

"We take safety very seriously on the platform and are very committed to insuring driver and rider safety," he said. 

He said the company has worked with cities in the U.S. to "codify" new rules for this kind of service, rather than being governed by existing taxi or limousine frameworks. Van Chau said he hopes the meeting next week can be a place to discuss some of those alternatives. 

Should Uber and its drivers not obtain city licensing for taxis, "the City of Hamilton is prepared to take legal action in the interest of public safety," Lamanes said. 

City staff said their concerns are not just for rule-following for its own sake.

"Travelling in a taxicab that is properly licensed by the City of Hamilton means there is a trained driver, insurance coverage and a vehicle inspected for mechanical fitness," Lamanes said.

But Van Chau said the safety the city wants to preserve could be delivered, along with reliability and convenience, via his service, should Uber decide formally to open here.  

"What we want to help deliver is access to the safest rides on the road," Van Chau said.