Bus, taxi, transit businesses on collision course with Uber options

As I write this, the City of Vancouver is about to get a report from a multi-party roundtable on a safe route to regulating vehicles for hire through the intersection of a panting Uber and a taxi owners’ lawsuit.

Uber is the biggest and highest-profile of several burgeoning “transportation network companies” (TNCs) whose customers use smartphones to access software to order and pay for rides in vehicles, mostly with non-professional drivers, often in contravention of vehicle-for-hire bylaws. Vancouver is one of the few major cities in the world without Uber, likely because of ICBC insurance obstacles.

As in every other city where Uber operates, some awkward regulatory compromise is likely here, because customers really like Uber-type services: quicker rides, often cheaper rates through dynamic pricing, friendlier (rated) drivers, smoother payment and the security of knowing the driver’s record with past customers. But it can’t be a rushed free fall into ruinous competition that compromises vehicle maintenance and driver pay levels and wipes out investments by taxi owners who still have to play by the cumbersome old rules.

We’re now hearing stories that Uber is adding to traffic congestion in Toronto and that drivers are making Third World wages.

Taxi owners in Vancouver are fighting back, not just with their lawsuit: they’ve just launched a new Uber-inspired app that lets customers find the nearest taxi from any company, rate the driver and pay (existing rates) with a smartphone. Still, the disruptive hammer of TNCs is going to hit the taxi industry. It’s been pummelled in cities like San Francisco, where traditional taxi business is down around 50%. And it won’t stop there.

Buses are next. UberPool allows Uber drivers to pick up a second or third passenger (taxis aren’t allowed to do that) and split the bill with a tap on a screen. TNCs are already enabling door-to-door options that are cheaper and faster than traditional taxis and buses, not unlike TransLink using taxis for some HandyDart rides.

Now that drivers for hire – which could even include drivers in car-share vehicles – can easily pick up people, how many buses could be replaced? A recent study in Toronto found that a third of UberX users who also use public transit have decreased their use of transit since they started using UberX. How could transit protect its fare revenue in the face of this competition? Or could more TNC vehicles in bus lanes take care of bus shortages at a fraction of the cost?

And highways. What would happen to congestion in the Massey Tunnel if a third of the single-occupancy vehicle drivers commuting from Delta used an app to hire a ride with a neighbour. Maybe we wouldn’t need a new bridge after all. Tax savings: $3 billion or so.

And parking. Vancouver has four growing car-share companies and the most Car2Go vehicles of any city in the world. One care-share vehicle is estimated to take up to 13 cars off the road. Adding a raft of new transportation options will undoubtedly have a further impact on car ownership, which could result in fewer parking spaces needed, fewer trips taken, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, less need for new – or even some existing – roads and bridges. Demand for transit would likely increase with less car ownership.

What we need now – as part of the post-plebiscite transit funding plan – is a major rethink of all our personal transportation options from the point of view of civic and customer needs, not protecting existing jobs and organizations. The review would include YVR, Port Metro Vancouver, TransLink, taxis, commercial fleets, TNCs, car rentals, car sharing, BCAA, SkyTrain, bike-sharing, shuttles, Greyhound, tour buses, school buses, limousines, Ministry of Transportation, ICBC and the B.C. passenger transportation branch.

Somewhere in all those organizations and all their new big data and software are many cheaper, safer, quicker, less polluting, more equitable transportation choices. Now is the time to open them up. •

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor.