Vancouver has the beaches, clean air and the mountains, a lifestyle to rival anywhere, yet we are still one of the only major cities in North America doing without one major necessity: Uber! That will hopefully change late this year, despite all the machinations to keep Uber out of Vancouver.
California-based Uber is an app-based business that operates in 40 Canadian communities as well as around the world. It allows people to request rides over their phones and sets them up with drivers who use their personal vehicles. Getting an Uber ride is typically cheaper than taking a taxi.
This Uber/Taxi debate is still not without controversy. The Vancouver Board of Trade (VBT) in October last year urged the Provincial government to makes changes to the transportation regulation such as ridesharing and to enhance the competitiveness of the cab industry in British Columbia. Many business organizations had expressed support for Uber entering the marketplace, including the Surrey Board of trade and the provincial business body, the BC Chamber of Commerce.
The VBT did a survey of their members and 80% said they were supportive of ridesharing. For those of you not having been to Vancouver, the taxi industry is ridiculous. In the downtown center, they are difficult to find and often refuse to take passengers to the suburbs. Add to this the traffic congestion, limited licensing, and something had to change to improve transportation. After all, according to the VBT, “ridesharing is now permitted in more than 40 Canadian municipalities, 70 countries, and 400+ cities across the globe.”
In October 2016, David Plouffe, Senior Advisor to Uber and past Senior Advisor to Barack Obama gave an impassioned keynote to the VBT to push the government for Uber’s inclusion in the transportation infrastructure.
Huffpo BC announced in September of last year that the four main taxi companies in Vancouver were going mobile, with an app that allows smartphone users to hail a ride with their phones. The eCab app was very similar to Uber that allowed customers to book cabs, track them, pay by cellphone and rate the drivers. It was a year in the making. This was in an effort to fight Uber at their own game. It was followed by a lawsuit later last year by the Vancouver Taxi Association against Uber.
So, the news this week by the Provincial Government to allow ride-sharing companies like Uber into the city by December 2017 was really no surprise. After all, there is an election coming this spring, and Uber is exceptionally popular. What was a surprise was the announcement of financial support to the taxi industry by the province. While the taxi association has always been considered a large financial supporter of the Vancouver City Council’s Vision Party currently in power, which has been against Uber from the start, there has been a pitched battle for years between the taxi group and the province.
I was astounded after CKNW, Vancouver’s premier news radio, said that it was also announced that “the province will put $1-million into helping create an app that allows the taxi sector to share dispatching and allow customers to hail a ride and pay for it in a similar fashion to ride-sharing.” Didn’t they make the app in September 2016?
The government also announced that they would allocate $3.5M for taxis to be made safer by ‘accident avoidance software’… whatever that means.
Now, Vancouver’s taxi industry is abysmal, which was the reason for overwhelming support for Uber-type ridesharing in the first place. The problems have been there for decades. A Customer Bill of Rights was a start but wasn’t enough to fix an ailing system that included not having enough taxis in general for the demand.
For the government’s part, they claim to be ‘leveling the playing field’ by changing some of the requirements taxi owners had to adhere to like the rationing of taxi licenses that Uber-esque drivers were not required to have.
The offer of $1M to help taxi companies develop a shared dispatch app seems to me to be the government trying to appease the taxi companies. In a free market society, this seems to make the so-called playing field less than fair for Uber. According to Wikipedia, “a free market is a system in which the prices for goods and services are determined by the open market and consumers, in which the laws and forces of supply and demand are free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly, or other authority.” – hmmm, of course, we don’t have a true free market.
On the surface, the concessions by the government seem to support Uber that also had lobbyists working with the provincial government for some time. I wonder if Uber contributed to the provincial government to get these concessions? The deregulations are not welcome by the taxi association who claims to be ready to appeal the decision and the City of Vancouver has never been a fan of Uber. It comes down to a power struggle between the taxi association and the province with the fear that a change in the status quo will cause them to lose business.
This may be true, but that’s competition. Vancouver’s goal to be the greenest city (in the world?) will be supported if more people take taxi’s and both, taxis and Uber, are allowed to augment the existing bus and light rapid transit systems. The CEO of Translink (BC’s public transit operator), Kevin Desmond said, “a recent paper from the American Public Transportation Association concluded that services such as Uber and Lyft support public transit by giving people another option for getting to bus and rail lines more easily.”
One of the advantages taxis have over Uber or Lyft is that taxis will have exclusive rights to be hired by phone, at a stand, or from the curb but I’m assuming that Uber will have the app system running full tilt in no time which, of course, is their expertise. From my experience I have never been able to get a cab at the curb (is that hailing), taxi stands are few and far between and the rudeness you get from a taxi dispatcher makes you wonder if the taxi will even show up for you.
With the changes in regulations, watch out for other challengers to the taxi dominance. Ripe Rides, a Vancouver Startup launched in 2015 is applying for 150 taxi licenses to augment their small fleet of luxury sedans being run with an Uber-esque platform.
The whole mess will come to a head this summer after the Spring provincial election. If the current opposition party, the NDP, is elected watch for the Uber approval to be rescinded or changed dramatically. Then there is also the obligatory lawsuits by the taxi association and who knows what else to muddy the waters.
If the decision to allow Uber stands, Vancouver will finally have a world-class transportation system.