When Claire Patenaude co-founded the ride-sharing service Allo Stop 17 years ago in Montreal, she wanted to do something meaningful that would contribute to society and young people.
She and partner Jo Spratt created a service that provided the essential link between people who needed a ride to another city and those who had one to offer.
Safer than hitchhiking and cheaper than the bus, the idea quickly took root in Quebec, with offices opening as far east as Chicoutimi, and later spread into Ontario, where the Toronto office opened in 1990.
But last week, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation ordered the offices in Toronto and Ottawa to shut down immediately.
The order resulted from a decision reached by the Ontario Highway Transport Board after it received a complaint from the bus lines Trentway-Wagar, Greyhound and Voyageur.
The bus companies claimed that because Allo Stop passengers pay money to their drivers as compensation for gas and the indirect costs of owning a vehicle, the drivers were in fact commercial carriers and needed to be licensed.
Allo Stop's defence has always been that they are simply carpooling, where monetary compensation is allowed under the law, but the Transport Board saw it otherwise.
Travelling daily After a month-and-a-half-long deliberation, the board decided that Allo Stop's activities could not be considered carpooling, because the passengers are not travelling daily from home to work.
Other reasons cited in the decision include the fact that drivers are not subject to safety audits or annual brake and maintenance inspections and are not licensed as public carriers.
At the ministry of transportation, spokesperson Bob Nichols refers calls to the Transport Board, whose manager, Felix D'Mello, faxes a copy of the decision to NOW but refuses to comment on it.
Patenaude says the board's decision is narrow-minded, and points to Europe, where inter-city ride-sharing is firmly entrenched.
Jim Devlin, the president of Trentway-Wagar, argues that Allo Stop had a definite "cost advantage" in being able to provide transport to its members without having to train or license its drivers, and that it was eroding their business.
He is concerned about the unfair competition offered on the one hand by mostly unregulated companies like Allo Stop and on the other by VIA Rail, which receives public money while bus companies do not.
He says the complaint against Allo Stop is part of an ongoing campaign against companies that offer similar deals.
In recent years, there's been a proliferation of van-pool companies that hire non-commercially licensed drivers to take passengers on regularly scheduled trips between major cities.
In 1997, the Highway Transport Board handed down a decision against one such company, Eagle Ride, putting it out of business. But according to Allo Stop's legal defence records, its "activities are entirely different from those of Eagle Ride."
Allo Stop does not hire drivers, nor does it run regularly scheduled routes, as a bus company would. It merely "completes its liaison service by matching the private travel plans of drivers and riders," and "is not materially different than a student posting a notice on a campus bulletin board that he has room for other students in his car."
Nor does the driver have the opportunity to make a profit. Even if a driver were to take a full load of five riders to Montreal, the maximum he or she would receive is $80.
Chad Dembski, one of the Allo Stop employees who showed up at work last week only to find that he was out of a job, says he "felt proud to work for them." He was impressed by the fact that Allo Stop was essentially a community service that did not rely on public money, but supported itself.
"Allo Stop could have charged a lot more for the rides, but they didn't. They weren't greedy." The one-way fare from Toronto to Montreal, for example, was $26, of which $10 went to Allo Stop and $16 to the driver.
In comparison, Trentway-Wagar's regular adult one-way fare for the same route is $79.72.
"A lot of poor people relied on this service for their transportation," says Dembski. "They couldn't afford to travel otherwise."
Patenaude is surprised that the board would define as commerce what in her eyes is clearly "an arrangement between free individuals." But now that the decision has been made, she feels there's little she can do. The cost of licensing the drivers would be prohibitive for her small company, as would a legal battle.
But she's still allowed to operate in Quebec -- beyond the jurisdiction of the Ontario Highway Transport Board -- where Allo Stop enjoys the wide support of the government and the public and 50,000 members currently use the system.
Thumbing it "It's part of student life," she says.
Meanwhile, in Ontario, nearly 10,000 former Allo Stop members will once again be forced to choose between busing it, thumbing it or catching a lift with Eco-Ride, a company that works mostly online to connect riders with drivers.
Says Eco-Ride's Alan Majer of the board's decision, "It definitely sounds like a case of big guys against little guys. In our system, people can arrange rides completely themselves online without our interference, so it makes me wonder why anyone's concerned.'
Says Pierre Sabi of Transport Quebec, Allo Stop in his province "is not considered commercial activity. Carpooling allows low-income people to travel, it saves money and is good to the environment. It's a collective way of travelling. It's the policy of the government to maintain carpooling.'
With additional research by Geoff Chan
Allo Stop: $26
Allo Stop: $20