Vancouver tech wants in on taxi industry’s fare trade

Ripe Rides rankling incumbent operators as it seeks 150 taxi licences from regulators

Ripe Rides director of business operations Nitesh Mistry says it’s time to bring a B.C. company into the Vancouver transportation market before the province gives Uber or Lyft the green light | Chung Chow

It’s not often a visitor will come to Vancouver, take in all the mountains and glass towers, and then go home only to nitpick about the city’s blemishes.

But Nitesh Mistry says the region’s limited transportation options aren’t looking so pretty to tech executives accustomed to zipping through the Silicon Valley with the help of ride-sharing apps from Lyft or Uber Technologies Inc.

“Vancouver is a tech-savvy city,” said Mistry, director of business operations at Vancouver-based Ripe Rides. “We’ve got major players in the technology field both at the local level and multinational level.

“For us not to have a mass-transportation solution that is digital dispatch is a bit of an eyesore for the city in comparison when you look at cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto.”

In December, Ripe Rides applied to the province’s Passenger Transportation Board for 150 multi-city taxi licences. Its service offers many of Uber’s hallmarks: GPS tracking of hired vehicles, driver ratings and digital dispatching through an app.

But acquiring taxi licences means there would be no surge pricing, as Ripe Rides would have to charge the same rates as taxis.

Ripe Rides has been honing its digital dispatch services since the Passenger Transportation Board granted 20 licences in December 2015 for upscale luxury sedans.

The sedans charge less than limousines, while the licences allow drivers to pick up and drop off throughout the Metro Vancouver region (the Passenger Transportation Board still officially refers to it as the Greater Vancouver Regional District, or  GVRD).

Mistry said it’s time to bring a B.C. company into the market before the province gives Uber or Lyft the green light.

“Where we differ versus an Uber or different ride-sharing companies is essentially what we’re applying for is within the current regulations of the government,” he said, adding that all the company’s drivers would have to be properly licensed for transporting passengers, and the vehicles would be commercially insured.

The province is still reviewing ride-sharing services like Uber. Last October Vancouver city council placed a one-year moratorium on issuing new taxi licences.

For now, Vancouver passengers yearning for more options have been left on the curb.

“[What] Ripe Rides is asking is a very tall order,” said Mohan Kang, president of the BC Taxi Association (BCTA).

Because most taxis are permitted to pick up in only one municipality, Kang said, the multi-city taxi licences Ripe Rides is applying for would put the rest of the industry at a competitive disadvantage. A Vancouver taxi driver can pick up in Vancouver and drop off in Coquitlam, but the Vancouver driver would not be able to pick up a passenger in Coquitlam while driving back to his home base.

The multi-city licences would allow Ripe Rides drivers to pick up and drop off anywhere in the GVRD, but the company would first also have to comply with city bylaws. Mistry said Ripe Rides would go through all the necessary steps among municipalities before launching taxi services.

“There’s nothing that prevented any of the other existing operators from applying for this type of authorization. It was something the incumbent operators chose not to do,” he said.

Lawyer Bill McLachlan, who represents the BCTA, said Ripe Rides’ application feels like “the old sheep’s clothing [is] out on the wolf again.”

“It’s also got another feature that’s predatory and an unfair advantage to all the taxi companies,” said McLachlan, who raised concerns with the Passenger Transportation Board in early February over Ripe Rides’ request for fare splitting for taxi-pool trips.

“If you pick up someone in Maple Ridge, pick up someone in Coquitlam and pick up someone in Burnaby, they’re all riding in a taxi to the city of Vancouver at an unfair price point.”

As of November 2016, 1,808 vehicles have taxi licences in the GVRD, according to data provided to Business in Vancouver by the Passenger Transportation Board.

Vancouver-based Yellow Cab Co. Ltd. and Black Top Cabs Ltd. have the most with 292 and 233, respectively. If Ripe Rides were to be granted all 150 licences, it would become the region’s third-largest taxi company, ahead of Burnaby’s Bonny’s Taxi Ltd., which has 141 licences.

“The whole industry is a gong show,” McLachlan said. “But is there an unfair advantage for 150 cars serving the GVRD? Absolutely, it’s ridiculous.”

Nadine Robinson, co-founder of long-distance ride-sharing app Flok, said the taxi industry has been left in a difficult position as tech companies start to move into transportation.

“Given the fact that we don’t have Uber and Lyft here, I think there have been a lot of people who have come out of the tech scene trying to find alternative solutions,” said Robinson, whose Vancouver-based company matches drivers with passengers travelling long distances for music festivals or sports games.

“One of the most attractive things about Uber compared to traditional taxis is the cost, but it’s also the ease. Everyone is so used to tracking everything on their phones, needing to order something with a click on your screen. And I think that’s where even traditional cab companies can keep up a little better – having integrated payment systems, being able to rate your drivers.”

Kang said the B.C. industry is making strides with its Zoro app, which allows customers to hail or pre-book taxis using their smartphones.

And Vancouver’s four main taxi companies launched the eCab app in the fall of 2015.

Yellow Cab general manager Carolyn Bauer, who represents the Vancouver Taxi Association, did not respond to multiple phone calls from BIV.

But Robinson said uncertainty over Uber or Lyft eventually entering the local market is likely making the incumbents reluctant to invest heavily in new technology, not knowing what the landscape will look like in a few years.

“On the flip side, if they want to survive they really have to stay current and stay ahead of the game,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mistry said, it could be weeks or months before Ripe Rides hears back from the Passenger Transportation Board.

The decision on Ripe Rides’ application may land right in the middle of the spring provincial election campaign, thrusting the issue of transportation options into the spotlight.

But McLachlan doubts that the BC Liberals will make any announcements on ride sharing before the election.

“You’re shooting yourself in the shoot for any donations from the taxi industry, which has always given the Liberals some money,” he said. “So if I was going to make an announcement that shot myself in the foot, I would probably do it after the election.”