B.C. cities split on steering future to Uber or reformed taxis

Communities 'held hostage' and 'begging for change' from new transportation technology, UBCM hears

Uber Canada public policy manager Michael van Hemmen

Municipal delegates grappled with whether to support existing taxi companies and their efforts to modernize or ride-matching juggernaut Uber in a forum on the issue at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention Tuesday.

The debate pitched those who fear the transportation app will destroy taxi industry jobs and suck away profits versus those who argued its technology better serves passengers who too often are left without usable on-demand transportation.

Maple Ridge Coun. Gordy Robson, a former taxi company businessman himself, said taxi firms don’t care how effectively local residents are served.

“In our community, we’re being held hostage,” he said, adding people can’t get a cab late at night or early in the morning.

“They don’t come out. Under the Uber system, it does,” Robson said. “It’s affecting our restaurants, it’s affecting our bars and it’s putting our kids at risk. And for God’s sake, somebody should do something.”

Robson spoke after Saanich Coun. Fred Haynes argued there’s little difference in the degree of risk to the community between under-regulated Uber drivers and unregulated dental or medical practitioners.

“I don’t think there should be ride sharing until we fully understand those risks,” said Haynes, who portrayed Uber as the bringer of a Bladerunner-like dystopic future.

Langley Township Coun. Angie Quaale took issue with that and said her community is “begging” for change.

“It’s not 1982 when Bladerunner was made,” Quaale said. “I’m not sure when this conversation changed to be referring to Uber and ride sharing as disruptive technology, instead of innovative technology.”

Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs said he doubts municipalities that want to defend existing taxi service can simply draw a line in the sand and keep Uber out indefinitely, adding the best option is to encourage the existing taxi industry to innovate.

He said he remains concerned about the ride-matching app’s use of surge pricing that gives users no consistency in what they pay for a ride and whether Uber drivers will accommodate disabled passengers.

While the province just released findings from an initial round of consultation on potential ride-sharing reform, Meggs said it has so far left a “policy vacuum” and given little sign of how it intends to proceed.

“We’re paralyzed right at the moment because the province doesn’t have a policy framework that would answer any of these questions in an effective way.”

The forum also heard from two taxi industry representatives, who touted efforts to roll out an e-cab app that also allows passengers to book from their phones.

They also highlighted concerns under the Uber model from the adequacy of insurance to whether drivers are adequately vetted for safety – there have been high-profile allegations of sex assaults involving Uber drivers.

Michael van Hemmen, Uber Canada’s public policy manager, said after one recent “unfortunate” incident in Toronto the company knew precisely which driver was involved because customer and driver are matched by the technology.

He said there’s no such assurance when someone is drunk, uses a taxi, but may not even remember after an incident which taxi company they used, let alone the driver.

Fernie Coun. Jon Levesque said he’s trying to weigh the merits of Uber, and whether it could offer a much-needed transportation option for small rural areas, where taxi service may be very limited or non-existant. He noted Fernie is on the verge of losing its local shuttle to and from the ski hill.

Meggs said the Uber debate has been unfortunately dominated by complaints of lack of cabs in downtown Vancouver after the bars close and Levesque’s concern highlighted the “burning problem” of insufficient public transit in rural B.C. and the potential for car-sharing to fill the gap.

He said the most obvious problem area is the Highway of Tears in northern B.C., where the government has moved to launch a basic bus service in response to the long-running series of murders of young women hitchhiking there.

Communities Minister Peter Fassbender, who is leading the government review of ride-sharing, noted the dynamic in an area like Metro Vancouver is far different from communities like Golden or Castlegar, where “you’ve got one company with two cars.”

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