Featured entry

Quick post to mark the occasion of the publication of my first column for the Vancouver edition of the daily Metro News newspaper yesterday. I will be contributing an article for the weekly column on the topic of transit, walking and cycling; it appears on Tuesdays. I’m very excited at getting to share my experiences […]

My first column contribution for Metro News Vancouver

Afterwords #3: Stepping up with some referendum talk

Afterwords consists of footnotes, references and outtakes from my column contributions published in Metro News Vancouver. Read my January 27, 2015 column Why You Should Vote Yes on the Congestion Improvement Tax over at Metro News Vancouver.

Unlike the previous two columns, I wrote this one in relative isolation. It shows in two ways — firstly, in that I truly believe every last word of it and it represents my experience having grown up and made my life in Vancouver; and secondly, in that I’m genuinely uncertain and curious as to whether it speaks to others’ reasons for supporting or not supporting the coming plebiscite known as the transit referendum on the congestion improvement sales tax. I’ve long accepted that my column won’t see me making exhaustively thorough arguments I’m used to reading in academic or professional settings (or even some slick websites). Instead, it’s really all about points of light for me, and hoping I’m reflecting what some folks are thinking even as I’m putting what I think on the table.

That being said, I’m likely to revise it considerably for the version that I’ll eventually put on Medium, as I’ve received some really valuable and thoughtful feedback since submitting it for the Metro deadline — that is, if the rest of life doesn’t completely sideswipe me for the week.

This blog post is much more in keeping with my original intent for my column, which was to have my notes immediately available as further reading. But I’m also going to use this as a placeholder where I’ll add my comments on the column as the week goes on.

Afterwords #2: More on Car-free Families

Afterwords consists of footnotes, references and outtakes from columns published in Metro News Vancouver. I’m considering incorporating these notes as best I can into the version of each column that I post to Medium. Speaking of which — if you enjoyed this piece, please consider giving it a recommendation on Medium.

This piece was a ton of fun to write. This was mostly because I started with some preconceived notions, took the topic to Facebook, got a ton of fascinating responses and was able to speak more in-depth to three families about their experiences to round out my thinking.

I’ve posted the piece to Medium for handy sharing, annotating and commenting, and am toying with the idea of going this route for all my future columns. Here are the additional links, if you’re curious:

  • Story on the U-Pass in the Georgia Straight from 2009, featuring the thesis work of Elizabeth Caitlin Cooper. I started at SFU in the fall of 2002, about a year before the U-Pass was introduced, so it’s interesting to me to see track and ponder at the effect this policy has had on my cohort.
  • Regarding children as a determinant of car ownership — it’s often included in models looking at car ownership (see this dissertation based on data from the Netherlands, which even broke it down by kids’ ages). It’s often noted for the kind of city that Vancouver’s been and aiming to become, it’s helpful to compare more with cities in Europe than other cities in North America, where car dependency is generally high enough that things like access to employment will obscure the effect of children on the car ownership decision.
  • I wasn’t successful in actually being able to listen to Brent Toderian’s interview with Stephen Quinn in the first week of January, so I took everyone’s word for it that he said what I said he did. (OK, so maybe I took the word of someone I know who works at the CBC a little more.)

I’m hoping to get to revisit this topic in a longer piece someday — what got left on the cutting room floor was me asking Richard how he felt about this topic. His response was, essentially, that the perceived need for owning a car made the decision to have children at all not a no-brainer, and inspired the final paragraph for my second revision. We both find practically every step of the ownership experience way more stressful than is worthwhile, for now. Perhaps seeing more families making a go of it successfully will eventually convince us otherwise. As always, it boils down to tradeoffs.

Policies on real-time ride-sharing and taxi-hailing: City of Vancouver to study Uber

I was interviewed yesterday by CBC Radio’s Michelle Eliot for her story on Uber making a comeback in Vancouver. It was timely, as I had just talking about Uber with a friend the week before that was prompting me re-consider my thoughts on it, which I blogged previously in 2012 (check out those posts here and here. Now that Uber is operating in 200 other cities, its previous retreat from Vancouver seems to be even sorer for both Uber and its supporters who enjoy using the service.

Here are my updated thoughts on Uber coming back to Vancouver for those who might be interested, some of which are in Michelle’s outtakes and some of which I thought of afterwards:

  • I’m in favour of the City of Vancouver’s studying not only Uber’s business model and its alignment with its other approaches to transportation, but also other taxi-related policies (such as allowing suburban taxis to do pickups during times of high demand). I hope their effort also examines the impact of new capabilities and models that said companies might put in place (like Uber’s surge pricing feature). One point I made to Michelle that did not make it to air is that by doing so, I hope that the City is able to establish a framework by which to evaluate and work with all new ride-sharing applications. Uber is unlikely to be the last (and we even have one local company, Pogoride, offering its take on the space as well).
  • The counter-argument Uber and its supporters have been making is that the law is stacked against them, thus it was necessary for them to operate outside the bounds of the law in order for people to know what was possible and thus gather momentum to drive change in a static, closed space. I would not disagree that there needs to be much more transparency and accountability around how decisions around taxi licensing is made – one good thing that has come out of Uber’s efforts has been to draw attention to how opaque this generally is in every city. It may be a little too much to hope that we’ll reach our ideal solution in one fell swoop, especially given how complex a problem transportation is to begin with, but chipping away at that opacity might help build some trust in the system.
  • In San Francisco recently, the SFMTA and the California Public Utilities Commission conducted a joint study on the impact of transportation network companies on the taxicab industry. One of their findings (I’m quoting from this SF Examiner article):
    Transportation network companies, unlike cabs, are not required to accommodate wheelchairs. Total wheelchair pickups by wheelchair-accessible taxis dropped from 1,378 per month in March 2013 to 768 per month this past July because it was difficult to get drivers to commit to the program that takes more time and money.
    The nature of custom transit and paratransit services is different in every city, but I did wonder back in 2012 whether these were the kind of programs and initiatives that would be affected by Uber’s entry. With aging demographics, high demand for HandyDART services and no signs of any increases in service, this is not likely to be any less of a problem. While Uber may be itself a solution to this for some, it still leaves an open question of whether and how willing we will be to find workable solutions.
  • Taxicabs are expensive in Vancouver, there is no doubt. Some of those may be for stupid, outdated reasons that need to be extinguished. But as we broach the question of pricing our roads — as we are starting to do in Metro Vancouver – I welcome opportunities to include Uber in a conversation about the kind of mobility system we want. That conversation should include, but not be restricted purely to, the one we are already having about Uber’s streamlined experience, convenience, and flexibility for drivers and passengers alike.
  • Uber does have a contribution to make for sustainable transportation systems, by adding more degrees of choice for multi-modal living. Michael Harden shared his experience of going car-lite using a combination of public transit and Uber. Like car-sharing and pay-as-you-drive insurance, these all have a role to play in shifting our mobility patterns away from all cars, all the time, especially in places where walking and cycling may still not be commonplace.
  • The conversation about Uber reminds me that we’re going to be having lots, lots more discussions like this as the full weight of our network capabilities comes to affect established industries and practices. Gordon Price forwards along an article from TechCrunch about a month ago: When Old-Economy Jobs Become New-Economy Gigs. The nature of human work and livelihoods in the face of increasing automation is the shadow that looms large for me in a number of discussions. (Our jobs, clearly, will be to build and maintain those robots.)
  • I support real-time ridesharing and innovation for mobility and transportation, as well as policies that enable it. But given the complexity of interests at stake, I have been very unimpressed with and skeptical towards Uber’s approach to listening or addressing concerns about the way it does business. I welcome them back to town – when we have our eyes open to how we can address its downsides and enjoy its upsides.

More, I’m sure, to come.

Introduction to Open Data: video lecture for Technicity technology for urban planning course

I was asked by Jennifer Evans-Cowley and Tom Sanchez, the instructors of the Technicity online course on the future of technology and cities, to contribute a 15 minute video lecture on the topic of Open Data. The course formally starts on February 26th, in a couple days. My video will be incorporated into their materials on “Entrepreneurial Urbanism” in Week 4. Many thanks to them both for the opportunity to talk about what I find exciting about open data!

Check out the video:

Early on in the process of scripting what I wanted to say in the video video, I decided to make it an introduction rather than a deep dive, as the course is open to those without a technical background. I also settled on emphasizing the parts of open data activity that excite, interest and concern me the most as a urban planner as I think this is the perspective that is not yet very well articulated. In a few days, I’ll be sharing some lessons and takeaways from making this video on both the content side and with regards to producing it. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any comments or feedback you might have on it!

I have also made it available under a Creative Commons license, so if there are parts of this video you wish to incorporate into your own work on the topic, please feel free to do so.

Presentations and new website forthcoming!

I am currently in the midst of overhauling this website to be more of a portfolio in addition to featuring my blog writing (which I am also figuring out how to do more of).

In the meantime, here are some links to things that may be of interest:

  • I’ll be speaking at the BCLA Connect 2014 conference in Vancouver on the work of the Vancouver Public Space Network, along with two other volunteers, Jaspal Marwah and Jonathan Bleackley. The event is happening Tuesday, April 1. I’m really looking forward to the conference, which is the annual conference of the BC Library Association. The organizers have done an amazing job at convening varied speakers and crafting an interdisciplinary program involving technology, the public interest and the information experience. I’m ecstatic to get to attend and am very thankful for their invitation to participate. Here is the abstract of our presentation:

Since 2006, the Vancouver Public Space Network has been a volunteer-driven non-profit organization doing advocacy and outreach on issues of public space and the public realm in and around Vancouver. Our interventions and projects have sought to bring the public’s attention and awareness to the wide range of values and uses of public space — from its role in community-building, sustainability and livability, to the unique part it plays in political and social expression. In this session, Jonathan Bleackley, Karen Quinn Fung, and Jaspal Marwah will highlight this diversity with a walkthrough of the VPSN’s activities. From making spaces to share meals, throwing dance parties on public transit, staging a public square design competition and orchestrating mobile phone-powered photo scavenger hunts, to mobilizing volunteers to collaborate on large-scale art installations or collect data on what features make for good public spaces, we hope this session will inspire libraries with simple ways to observe, understand and better connect the people in your communities into an engaging, lively and cherished place.

See what else is planned on the BCLA Connect conference schedule. I’m looking forward to connecting with interesting likeminds there — which I am almost certain, based on my past experiences of the the awesome librarians in m life, I’ll have a fantastic time doing.

  • Also coming out of my work with the VPSN, my talk at Pecha Kucha Night Richmond 2014 volume 4 from November 2013 is now online on the City of Richmond’s YouTube channel, featuring myself and Celia Chung speaking on the connection of walkability and public space to public transit.

  • I’m also looking forward to attending Vancouver’s Open Data Day activities, now open for registration. I’m interested in two projects: I’d like to dive in a bit with Open Trip Planner and TransLink GTFS data. My backup project is scraping and parsing City of Vancouver PDFs of meeting agendas and minutes to do keyword watching. For the first project, I’m not sure I’ll have a development environment set-up for doing so, so if this is something you are interested in and can help out with, or if my backup project appeals, please reach out to me (on Twitter or by e-mail, my first name at my domain name.

I’m excited about breathing some life into this blog. A lot of the work so far has been tackling the age-old question of what I can to do to not only blog more, but more intentionally with regards to the things I’m wanting to achieve.

Almost into June: FCM, NetSquaredCamp 2013, and my podcast!

This weekend, the intrepid organizers behind the NetTuesday Vancouver meetup are holding NetSquaredCamp. I attended the one in 2012, as well as one way back in 2010, and rather enjoyed it. I’ve yet to identify what precisely I want to get out of the event this year, since I’m in the middle of bit of a pivot in my research and career. The deeper thinking is forthcoming on that.

More recently, I also found myself inspired by Trina Isakson‘s presentation at the monthly Net Tuesday meetup, entitled, “How individuals are using technology and data to support vulnerable populations.” I found that presentation to be right up my alley, considering new avenues for individuals (not organizations) to make a difference for people with various challenges beyond the garden variety giving and volunteering.

Thanks to the good folks at Net Tuesday, there is a video of Trina’s entire presentation, and Trina has also made her slidedeck available via the website for her consulting business, 27shift. Her presentation was really refreshing to me — I’ve been wading, waist-deep, in the policy side of many of the same questions and issues she has been asking through her research, only more from a social enterprise and research lens. I see a lot that is inspiring there with regards to my own interest in collaborative governance. Her work served as a perfect reminder that there are many more people trying to bridge the gaps that I’ve been fixated with, from a number of directions, perspectives and tools. (I’ve also been enjoying Trina’s blog.)

I’m also following along (mostly on Twitter) with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities‘ Annual Conference being held in Vancouver from May 30th to June 3rd. Judging by their program and the tweets (#fcmyvr) there are a lot of interesting conversations happening about the growing role of local government in taking the lead on the decisions that shape the sustainability of our cities. I will be attending the Youth Panel and Reception on Friday, May 31st (tomorrow) and am hoping to connect with folks on the topic of scenario planning in local government.

Youth Summit Podcast

June is going to bring ramping up my podcast! Thanks to Check Your Head, I was able to record some fantastic interviews with fellow delegates at the Leading The Way Youth Summit. I’ve been letting them stew in my head for a little while, but the real work — edit, scripting and recording intros, putting the final spit and polish — is going to be happening more in earnest in the next little while. The task I seem to be dreading the most is choosing the right podcast music. Maybe I just have to remember what my printing production teacher in high school used to say to us all: “Let’s get functional before we get fancy.”

While I’m talking about high school, a quick story on the small world front — my information technology teacher, who taught me and a class of grade 10 misfits BASIC in 2000, had a nice write-up in The Globe and Mail. That class in high school was certainly a fairly prominent geek milestone in my life. I’m glad to see Eric Hamber maintaining and broadening its rep as a geeky school. (I had also run into him and his family very randomly just two weeks before the story was published, hence the small worldness.)

APA 2013 – Participation & Thoughts on Unconference on Intelligent Cities

Civic Hacking Session room at APA 2013

From Christopher Pollard (@CRVanPollard).

I’m not at the American Planning Association’s annual meeting in Chicago! I wish I were (and yes, it would involve many a scene like the one pictured above). Here are some of the reasons why!

Taking on a Role in the APA Technology Division

I ran for and have been elected the Secretary-Treasurer of the APA‘s Technology Division. I have taken an interest in their work since I became a member of the APA and started attending the annual meetings when I started my planning degree, and take office in this position formally at the Technology Division’s business meeting (which was held on April 14). I’m looking forward to working with the rest of the executive committee on projects involving planners interested in technology, as well as learning more about the experiences and interests of other members! My statement as part of the nomination process is still online if you are curious.

APA’s first unconference (topic: intelligent cities)

Earlier I mentioned the APA’s annual meeting. I’m pleased that this year’s event in Chicago will be featuring an unconference on Intelligent Cities on Wednesday, April 17, as well as a session on Civic Hacking (hashtag: #hackAPA) with many of the interesting people working and thinking at the intersection of urban planning and the potential of online tools for organizing, participating, and making things happen. This is a hugely important conversation for planners to be involved in and I’m stoked to see an opportunity for planners to be leading the discussion, as I feel planners have important contributions to make around technology and the broader intents and impacts of policy. The unconference organizers are to be praised for opening up the conversation to non-conference attendees — something I find incredibly important given the misconceptions surrounding what planning does, how it does it, what it should be for, and how technologies will and ought to figure in all this.

Although I’m not able to attend the event in Chicago, I’ve taken a gander at the ideas that have been proposed and voted for the sessions highlight conversations I think need to hapen. As of Monday, there are 18 ideas on the site to lend support for some topics that I think matter. I encourage you to do the same! The session proposals are a quick skim and I think it will be interesting for those in room to get a sense of what those who couldn’t make it are thinking about.

Quick suggestions for first-time unconference attendees

Having facilitated a couple, attended a few, and thought a lot about unconferences — all of which had their own unique style, approach and cultures to consider in adapting Harrison Owen’s Open Space method — I thought I’d share a few quick tips and thoughts for those attending the unconference, especially since it is loosely affiliated with the annual meeting, a very different kind of event.

(A bit of background for those who might not know me — it was the experience of Toronto’s Transit Camp in 2007 that eventually led me to write my undergraduate thesis on the experience of public engagement, to help convene and organize Vancouver’s Transit Camp and TransLink’s SkyTrain Security Unconference, and to pursue my current studies in transportation planning.)

  1. See the diversity as an opportunity. Hopefully, the unconference gives you a chance or an excuse to get to know people from a diversity of backgrounds who hold different views and have different experiences. Embrace it! Diversity is an unconference’s strength. The people in attendance have illustrated that they’re interested in the topic enough to attend and share their time — dig in! You may be surprised where you might find support or refinement for your ideas.

  2. Turn your curiousity up to 11. The topic is definitely one on which strong views might be held. It is all too easy for us to make the assumption that views we disagree with are rooted in ignorance, misunderstanding, or ideology. As a prof teaching me intercultural communication once advised, “Turn your judgment into curiosity.” There are lots of things to question. Identify expressions of dissent in your conversation and make room for them — amplify them, even, and thank the people who have the courage to put it forth respectfully. Chances are good for every one person who has the strength to voice disagreement, there are a number of people who agree with it in whole or part.

  3. Look for common ground. There’s often a lot of focus on positions — things we want — with much less interest in why we want them. Respect the expertise of everyone in the room. It may mean it takes longer to figure out if the perspectives lend themselves to concrete action that you can offer once the unconference is over. Hanging on to that common ground is vital, especially if you think your follow-up will involve collaborating with people at a disance.

  4. Have fun! Unconferences get their energy in much the same way cities do — by acknowledging the role that everyone has in creating an informative environment.

My review of Evgeny Morozov’s new book

This is not directly related to the conference but if I were at the discussion on Intelligent Cities, it is doubtless I would make mention of this book at least once.

I penned a brief, 500-word review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism for the Division’s most recent newsletter. Since the Division is in the midst of shifting gears on its web presence, I will re-post my review here on my blog. With any luck, I will get to expand on my thoughts on that article here on blog in the future as well. One criticism of Morozov (mostly these tweets from Alex Steffen) is that he doesn’t go far enough to suggest alternatives or be generative in pointing the way towards action. Morozov has responded in the past to this critique (although I’m not able to find a citation for it, curses!) by saying that it’s not his job. His job, as he appears to see it, is to point out the weaknesses and failures associated with the outcomes of the thinking he criticizes (and to do so in ways that are accessible and which engage with the broader history of human scholarship and knowledge), not to reform the system by ensuring it appropriately internalizes it into action going forward.

The book is perhaps thin on prescriptions for action if compared with a book like, say, Jack Manno’s treatise on the effect of commoditization, Privileged Goods. I think the main effect of making concrete suggestions is that it makes people zoom in on the content of the prescribed action, rather than the process of considering and assimilating the ideas. In short, Morozov would undo his own argument against solutionism if he described technology outcomes in any kind of concrete fashion. He does highlight examples of processes that lead to outcomes that he respects (such as adversarial design).

(I’ll admit to occasional frustration with the performance he engages in, though I see why he might think it necessary or helpful.)

Untangling positions from interests in the Uber debacle

Since I first wrote my previous post describing my reactions and thoughts on Uber, the topic has since, as expected, exploded — both across the continent and here in Vancouver. Uber itself has stoked this fire. Since Uber’s business model makes it technically a limousine service, the Passenger Transport Board is requiring it to charge $75 per ride minimum as per the way the board classifies the types of trips being served by Uber and contends it is a transport company, which Uber disagrees with. Uber has encouraged its users here in Vancouver to bombard the Passenger Transport Board (which regulates taxi and limo rates and license policies), Mary Polak, the Minister of Transport, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson with social media condemnation.

Earlier this week, David Eaves offered his thoughts to the Passenger Transportation Board through a thoughtful blog post that broke down some of the pros and cons of the minister’s response, and what cities have to gain with the experience Uber offers. He linked to my post saying that I don’t make the case for not letting Uber into the market — and since I don’t think I intended to (though I admit it may not read that way), I don’t feel bad that I failed in that regard. What I had mostly hoped to argue for was some measure of thoughtfulness about the complexity of the situation.

I’d like to borrow a tack from the field of negotiation and separate the interests in this situation from the positions to navigate conflict and collaboration. In short, a position is a preference for a specific outcome, whereas an interest often pertains to the reasons underlying our desire for a position. (Thanks again to David for blogging a reminder about these helpful concepts recently.)

Uber and its supporters have got a position and they’re sticking to it — that any body that deems to regulate its services is corrupt, engaging in privileged protectionism of taxi and limo companies to the detriment of innovation, and that this is an injustice to consumers who are being gouged with inefficient, pricy and poor service. They’ve insisted upon a David and Goliath reading in which Uber and the customers are the victims and the only thing that is satisfactory is a return to the way when Uber, frankly, was operating completely off the radar. Granted, they did so with drivers already working for companies that, we assume, were licensed.

Having never worked or interacted with them directly outside of Twitter, the Ministry of Transport does not have a reputation amongst the urban transportation advocates I’ve been in contact with as the most, shall we say, with it of bodies. So their main mode of responding to the deluge was a somewhat cold and sterile press release statement that made some allusions of collaboration with Uber. This happens to feed right into the way Uber would prefer us to see things — a faceless bureaucracy that doesn’t care about you and I or our transportation challenges. Fault me for not being too cynical about the board’s motives, but it looks to me more like the Ministry and the PTB were blindsided by a company that (and this part is ambiguous) never seemed to try to engage it in good faith or did anything but start yelling about being a victim.

I don’t have a position. As I said at the end of my last piece, I don’t pretend to know how this should all play out. But I also categorically reject the way Uber is framing this situation, because they have something to gain from it, such as an angry raging public to do their bidding to strongarm regulators into doing something that may privilege Uber at the expense of a benefit we actually might kinda like.

That said, my interest — and what I hope others’ interest should be too — is in seeing policy developed that allows innovations in service delivery (such as Uber) to work in the space with some adequate consideration for the reasons the industry is regulated, of which the price is an important factor among many. Some participants in the conversation on Twitter have brought these up, such as issues of safety, inspection of cars, distribution of costs and benefits, and the opinions of the people employed in the industry.

A recent Vancouver Courier story on the subject includes statements from the director of the Passenger Transportation Board and Uber’s Vancouver manager, and seems to reinforce the story being told by Uber rather than shedding light on the nature of those considerations. That’s disappointing but befitting a process that has never been transparent. Jan Broocke, the director of PTB, alluded to the fact that the pricing was decided as recently as July 2011 and agreed upon by the limo industry. In transport policy time, this is considered recent.

Some similar companies as Uber have run into the same roadblocks, and have chosen to approach it differently, as this piece by Brian X. Chen in the New York Times briefly describes. This reinforce my points — the way this story is being framed is not the only way possible, and far from the only valid one.

That being said, the truth and the way forward likely incorporates a little bit of all approaches. To speak to that, I want to emphasize that I am NOT saying that taxi companies should not be subject to competition. I am NOT in favour of making things unduly difficult for companies doing heretofore difficult/impossible things with technology to improve the experience. And I certainly don’t think that the poor quality of taxi service or the transportation system in Vancouver more broadly (since some have tried to bring the scarcity of late night transit into this discussion) is something we shouldn’t be frustrated and willing to speak up about.

For the benefit of those who might not know me or where I’m coming from, I advocate for public transit as a volunteer with the Vancouver Public Space Network and am getting a master’s in planning with a focus on transportation and study the interaction of society and technology. So I’m curious and passionate about the experience of urban mobility and issues of access, and have written elsewhere on the topic.

I don’t have a position. Instead, I am deeply interested that the public as a whole get a policy that works for all of us — those employed by the taxi and limo industries, consumers of varying stripes (i.e. not just those of us with smartphones or money for taxis as they operate right now), and I’m far from satisfied by only one side’s story on the costs, risks and benefits.

Being curious about interests is harder to convey in a tweet than simply asking for something, but for me much more worthwhile. (And since my thesis in progress is on Twitter as a site of policy dialogue, this whole thing has been eminently useful and enlightening.)

Unpacking Uber’s role in the transportation system and policy

Earlier this year, I wrote a brief piece looking at existing and on the horizon taxi and taxi-like transportation services in Vancouver from the user perspective. A month or two after this, I was very glad to see Luke Brocki at The Dependent tackle the structure of taxicab licensing in Vancouver — an area rich in questions and history that deserved (and still deserves) a lot more attention than it usually gets.

An image of a taxicab on Vancouver's Granville Street at night

Photo by Alejandro Mejía Greene from Flickr, CC.

The story is ever-evolving, with the new smartphone-savvy sedan service Uber making a splash. The gist (from Uber’s FAQ):

Uber is an on-demand car service that allows everyone to have a private driver experience through iPhone, SMS, and web based requests. We are a technology startup that has created a more efficient means of transportation, making your city more useful and more pleasurable to move around in. Uber connects clients and our network of professional town car and limo drivers in the simplest most elegant way possible, and we do it at a fraction of the cost.

(If you’re curious, here is a detailed account of using Uber in Vancouver).

Over at Boing Boing, Xeni Jardin shared her personal experience with Uber. Xeni offered the story as a reaction to the news that Washington D.C. is considering reviewing its bylaws in order to protect the existing taxi industry in light of the competition Uber is presenting. From Xeni’s post:

I absolutely love the smartphone app Uber, which allows you to order car service on demand, instead of trying to hail or call a cab or order a black car. It became an essential tool during my radiation treatment for cancer in LA, when treatment made me too weak to drive, public transportation didn’t serve the route I needed to get to the hospital, and I was just too flaked out to arrange rides in other ways. When my friends Tara Brown and Sean Bonner “gifted” me some Uber credits, I tried it once and was hooked. Uber wasn’t a luxury for me, but a truly practical service.

It is also the very definition of a disruptive technology: as Napster was to the recording industry, Uber is to taxi unions. And, not coincidentally, the guy behind it is Travis Kalanick, who was once sued for $250 billion by the MPAA, RIAA, and NMPA over his now-defunct P2P search engine Scour.

In his latest round of pissing off legacy industries by building great internet-based services, Kalanick has managed to upset the forces that represent Washington, DC area cab drivers. And the DC city council is now considering regulation that would mandate much more government oversight over Uber’s operations, and severely cramp its style.

Uber is along the lines of the kind of thing that I wrote about in my previous article — a service that only works when individuals on both the supply and the demand side have access to real-time location-aware information about each other’s supply and demand respectively. One of the challenges with Uber is that it doesn’t create new transportation supply in a form we are more accustomed with — such as new moving infrastructure (like new transit vehicles) or new or re-allocated static infrastructure (such as a new water crossing or bike-lane). This is, in fact, improved allocation of moving infrastructure — coordinating excess supply that always existed (in the form of off-duty limosines) with demand that either would have been previously fulfilled up by taxicabs, transit, people begging favours from friends, (in some cities) car-sharing, or, in the worse case, resulting in trips not taken.

What I’ve done above is describe Uber’s contribution using my modest toolbox of transportation economic terms. What prompted me to do so is the face I pulled when I saw the word Xeni chose to describe Uber in her post: disruptive. That word carries a lot of baggage that and disguises a lot of problems, in my view. Disruptive can certainly be descriptive in the sense that it disrupts the situation as it currently exists, the status quo. But the occasional tone with which people use the word disruptive — the glowing, revalatory air — overly attributes positive social change with private business entrepreneurs 1. Disruptive implies that a change is positive and desirable by virtue of the fact that it upends existing systems. It reeks of a kind of economic determinism: that by virtue of something being more efficient, it is unquestionably better for everyone involved. As you can pick up from the tone of the first quote, this is undeniably a large part of Uber’s self-image.

That assumption makes me cringe really, really hard, because it makes it seem like the winners and losers in the re-configuring of a system somehow each deserve their respective successes and failures; or, that all else being given, those involved will always, unwaveringly back a bad system as long as they personally see benefit. That is profoundly reductionistic for all the players involved, and a really bad faith way to characterize policy decision-making. Don’t misinterpret me as taking an extreme position by this; I’m not a pollyanna believing everyone will put aside their differences in selfless support of the common good. The realities of the politics surrounding such decisions are not lost on me. But a neoliberal approach that automatically says we should let Uber re-configure our transportation system however it will simply because it can just because it’s amazing fantastic technology, strikes me as a pretty myopic position biased towards people with smartphones and saying taxi drivers should either adapt (which some will find easier than others) or fail and have only themselves to blame for their fate.

To me, what is worse is that it purports to have some kind of moral certainty that the existing system is worth overthrowing. Here’s a completely hypothetical situation that illustrates how problematic this can be. Earlier this year, TransLink was considering cutting the Taxi Savers program, which provides seniors with taxi vouchers to use for unexpected trips when using transit or the HandyDart door-to-door service wasn’t feasible. This program was costing TransLink $1.1 million per year and they were about to get rid of it, but seniors anticipating its impacts managed to save the program through a dedicated letter-writing campaign. I know nothing about how the economics of this program work out for taxi drivers, but let’s hypothesize that taxi drivers do see a bunch of their business impacted negatively for Uber. What happens to their ability to provide services to Taxi Savers? Do they bill TransLink more? Does that impact different demographics differently? Transportation systems are integrated and complex in that way. Private businesses get to make choices about their business models in ways that allow them to focus narrowly. Governments don’t technically have that luxury — even though circumstances dictate that they have to, to the detriment of those who slip between the cracks. (This, without even considering the question of who drives taxis anyway?)

Is the existing arrangement worth defending? I wouldn’t pretend to know what the answer is — and I’m uncomfortable with the idea of anyone, tech or transportation startup, asserting that they do, even if I get why they have to say that. If nothing else, this is a heads-up to transportation departments in cities everywhere to think about who wins and loses as a result of tools targeting and serving new segments, and being proactive in helping us talk through how this tracks with, say, the next 30 years of the city) or region‘s transportation future.

1 – Not to play favourites, but social entrepreneurs, seem to at very least pay lip service to the complexity of the systems into which they enter. Not all of them, of course.