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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.

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