Editorial: Why it’s time to stop fighting Uber

Ottawa just joined Edmonton in opening up the city's streets to North America's most controversial ride-sharing app. Now, it's our turn

March 31, 2016

By Max Fawcett

We can now add Ottawa to the growing list of Canadian cities that have decided to embrace the inevitable and allow Uber, and other ride-sharing apps, to operate legally on their roads. A report to council delivered by Diane Deans, the chair of the city’s community and protective services committee, argued that the city was “taking the handcuffs” off the industry as a whole—and, more importantly, responding to ongoing public support for more (and better) alternatives. Ottawa’s city councillors will vote on the report’s recommendations on April 13, and if they have an abiding interest in keeping their jobs they’ll almost certainly vote in favour of it.

Ottawa isn’t alone in moving forward on this issue. A similar vote will be held by Toronto’s city council in early May, and it will be based on a final report on ride-hailing regulations that’s expected to be tabled on April 7. Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the first market in which Uber was legalized after a rancorous (but ultimately successful) vote in January, the insurance-related issues that have held up service and forced Uber to temporarily withdraw from the market are expected to be resolved by the summer. In each case, the solution has been largely the same—establish a new licensing category for app-based services, clarify the insurance and inspection requirements for ride-sharing vehicles, and collect revenue from riders who use them that can be put towards funding the accessible transportation options that some have suggested would be jeopardized if the taxi industry were forced to compete with companies like Uber. There’s no good reason that I can see why those solutions won’t work here as well.

TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender is keeping his cards up for the time being, notwithstanding a renewed push by Uber to get the public to apply pressure to their elected officials on this issue. As he told the Vancouver Sun, “We are not going to be pressured into doing something quickly without ensuring we have adequate input from a variety of sources, including the tax industry, local governments (and) the business community.” Fair enough. But at some point his government is going to have to make a decision on this issue, and there’s no way around the fact that it will upset one of two groups: the public, or the taxi industry. And if I might offer a small piece of advice, it would that only one of those will have a material impact on the outcome of the 2017 provincial election.

I understand the taxi industry’s position on this issue, and I’m sympathetic to their concerns about public safety and the importance of ensuring that Uber and other similar companies are properly regulated. But properly regulated doesn’t mean regulated out of existence. If Vancouver’s taxi companies want to continue fighting Uber, they should do it on the road. By providing improved service and better meeting the needs of their customers, they’ll be able to carve out a healthy portion of the overall market. But business as usual, in which the supply of taxi plates is artificially constrained and competition prevented from entering the market, should not be an option any longer.

There’s no way to sugar-coat the fact that this would be bad news—very bad, even—for taxi companies. The value of their investments in taxi plates will be undermined—decimated, even—by any decision to allow Uber to operate legally in Vancouver. But they were never entitled to their business model in the first place—its existence was the result of a confluence of political, economic, and technological factors rather than some inexorable universal law. Meanwhile, it’s not the government’s job to protect the value of their single biggest investment. Taxi regulations should exist to protect public safety, not private interests. And even if the government could protect them from Uber, it seems pretty clear that, as Van Mag senior editor Trevor Melanson wrote last month, the value of their plates is already heading to zero in the long run.

Oh, and if they’re expecting sympathy from journalists? Well, they’ve come to the wrong place. After all, those of us in the print media have had to stare down our own forces of creative destruction, and we’ve suffered plenty of losses—financial and personal—along the way. But we’ve also been forced to adapt and improve, to think more consciously about our customers, and to compete against a host of new entrants and entities who refused to play by our rules or do business in accordance with our needs. I’m not sure if it’s made us better or not, but adapting and evolving is the only option we ever really had. So it is for the taxi industry in Vancouver. Let’s get on with it already.

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