Exclusive: B.C. government concerned “first and foremost” about taxi industry

In a recording of a speech obtained by BIV under freedom of information, Peter Fassbender also suggested...

BIV files

A discussion paper on the regulation of ride-hailing services like Uber is expected this month, but the minister responsible told taxi drivers and owners that the BC Liberals have their back.

In a recording of a February 28 speech at the annual general meeting of the BC Taxi Association obtained by BIV under freedom of information, Peter Fassbender also suggested they put on a better face for the public.

“I need to tell you we, as a government, are concerned about the future of the taxi industry, first and foremost. And why is that?” Fassbender said at the meeting. “That is because all of you in this room, all of the companies represented, all of the individual drivers in this province, have invested their lives into this industry, and families’ lives are at stake in terms of the future of the industry.”

The speech, given by the Community, Sport and Cultural Development minister at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver, came less than four weeks after two failed byelections in which the BC Liberals campaigned on the potential for convenience and lower costs from the so-called sharing economy embodied by services like Uber and accommodation rental marketplace Airbnb.

Fassbender said government was talking to industry, companies, individual drivers, local governments and chambers of commerce, “all of the people who have a vested interest in any change that we may contemplate making. But we’re not going to rush to change, we have no agenda in terms of timing, there is no secret hidden decisions that have been made.”

He also issued a challenge to the industry. “I know there’s lots of talk about technology [and] how it’s going to help your industry; the quality of the product that you put on four wheels every single day is critical. I will say this as a consumer: I think the industry has some work to do.

“You need to talk to yourselves and say what do we as an industry need to do to change? If public perception needs to be changed, what are we going to do as an industry to ensure the public sees us as the valuable contributors to the economy of B.C. that you are?”

During a brief question period, a man who said he was a Yellow Cab driver, but whose name was not audible, said: “Sir, if you bow to them [Uber], I have no problem, but they have to follow the same rules and regulations.”

Said Fassbender, “I didn’t hear a question, but what I did hear was you saying that it needs to be a fair and a level playing field. The answer to that is absolutely, and you’re the very example of the people we want to protect to make sure you and your families can benefit from the investment you’ve made.”

Another driver asked whether service hours could be extended on SkyTrain on weekends to reduce pressure on taxis.

“I think I’m the luckiest minister in government because not only do I have community sport and cultural development, but the premier gave me TransLink as something to work on,” Fassbender said. “We’re looking at the needs of the region for the next 10, 15, 20, 30 years. Transportation is absolutely critical, SkyTrain is one of the components, buses are one of the components, the taxi industry is one of the components for the future of moving people around. Am I going to make the statement that SkyTrain will run [later]? It comes down to doing the business analysis.”

The taxi industry is politically valuable to both the BC Liberals and NDP. Elections BC’s database shows that taxi companies and organizations have donated $93,550 to the BC NDP (including $47,100 from the BC Taxi Association and Vancouver Taxi Association) versus $87,365 to the BC Liberals (including $53,850 from the same associations). Many taxi drivers are based in battleground ridings in South Vancouver, Surrey and Abbotsford.

How forward-thinking will the government’s discussion paper be about this rapidly changing industry?

The Quebec government agreed this month to a one-year pilot project to allow Uber to continue there, but Uber must pay a per-ride fee to government and Uber drivers must qualify for the same licence held by taxi and limousine drivers. Representatives of Quebec taxi drivers have applied for a court injunction to shut Uber down.

The future for both modes is driverless. NuTonomy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, launched a driverless taxi pilot project in Singapore in late August, less than a month before Uber began its test of a driverless Ford Fusion fleet in Pittsburgh. NuTonomy and Uber deployed backup drivers in case of emergency.