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.)

6 Comments

  1. Gunter

    Jan Broocke comment that the industry agreed to the current rate structure is a load of crap. We did not agree to it, at least not the majority. Understand, that the PTB and the MCC before it have never taken the limousine industries position into account, if that position conflicted with the position of some political hack who didn’t know a damn thing about the industry.

    The current taxi “shortage” is as much a result of asinine Vancouver City policies as it is the PTB. I have been in this industry for over 20 years and watched it go from bad to worse from the regulatory end. This of course translates into problems for the industry as well. Right now there are probably as many illegal operators in the Lower Mainland as there are legal ones. While many operated below the radar and didn’t affect the taxis and the legal operators, Uber managed to suck them in to work for even lower rates and thereby exposed them to the regulators. Also, by providing this easy access, t put the illegal operators into a position whereby they did start to affect the taxi and limousine industries.

    Do you really think or expect people that have invested a lot of time and money to build their business, to stand by and let a bunch of illegal operators destroy or at least undermine that business ? I don’t think so. Uber made no effort to get into the market legally, so why should anybody feel sorry for them or support them after the fact ?

    As it sits right now, most of the support seems to be coming from a crowd that wants a Rolex at Timex prices. Sorry, but I’m not interested in taking a pay cut, or having to work 16 hours a day because you want something for nothing.

    Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  2. BobaFet69

    Seems like the cost of operating a taxi is unfairly passed on to the driver, uber may be a way to change the whole process by eventually doing away with the dispatcher and taxi companys. Independent and licensed drivers would drive down the cost of fares while increasing the wages of drivers.

    Posted October 18, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  3. Can’t say one way or the other what kinds of benefits/tradeoffs are involved in practice.

    That said, this situation is continuing to evolve and shift — as this story about UberX drivers in Boston indicates. Stay tuned.

    Posted October 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  4. BobaFet69

    That Boston story gives me hope for better Toronto fares, maybe not a decrease but at least preventing another hike.

    Posted October 21, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  5. BobaFet69

    Taxi rules are so convoluted, I was trying to flag a cab in South Bend Indiana and no one would pick me up. Turns out you are not allowed to flag a cab, you have to call the dispatcher. That ridiculous policy decision favours dispatchers over drivers under the guise of ‘safety.’

    Posted October 21, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  6. BobaFet69

    Although many people here are still angry at Uber for price gouging during the storm doesn’t mean a similar company could not take over.

    Posted October 21, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

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