The war on cars has just begun. If you thought a few bike lanes were an issue, wait until you see what Uber, Tesla, GM and a plethora of ride-share companies are planning. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a “war on cars.” It’s a war on the single-passenger, privately owned, human-driven, mostly parked, heavily subsidized, pollution-be-damned, internal combustion car – the kind we’ve come to know and love, with its multibillion-dollar fantasies of “open roads” and social status.
The latest, hottest attack point is the pending arrival of Uber and similar transportation network companies in B.C., one of the last jurisdictions in North America to figure out how to fit them into the mix.
But also on the on-ramp is a wider mobility future that’s “automated, connected, electric and shared,” to quote a University of British Columbia study done for the City of Vancouver. Expect an end to free roads and bridges (as in region-wide tolls or some variation of regional mobility pricing); the imminent arrival of self-driving cars, trucks and buses; blurred lines between ride-sourcing and public transit; and, ultimately, an integrated monthly bill that gives you prepaid access to every available transportation option.
The last option (geek name: MaaS, mobility as a service) is already being tested in some European cities. It’s a Compass-like card on steroids, with one monthly integrated payment that covers tolls, shared vehicles, shared bikes, taxis, ride-share services, buses, trains and ferries.
The implications of all this for future transportation infrastructure needs – both public and private – are highly disturbing for taxpayers and drivers paying the bills for massive bridge and highway expansions designed for single-occupancy vehicles.
But for now, the buzz is mostly about Uber and other transportation network companies. A tech-savvy city without Uber is unthinkable for any self-respecting millennial. The BC Liberals have cleverly crafted an easy-does-it transition to ride sharing, with a post-election implementation schedule and a trunkful of handouts to an outmoded, outflanked and bruised taxi industry.
This delicate policy dance includes a long-overdue increase in the number of taxis, a level playing field for all vehicles for hire and the ability of any certified vehicles for hire, including taxis, to pick up and drop off passengers anywhere.
The NDP is in denial, saying it won’t go along with the Liberal plan if it’s elected, likely because it takes the lid off taxi restrictions and locks in unfortunate losses for taxi licence owners.
For both parties, courting the taxi industry’s formidable political support in swing suburban ridings has been more compelling than delivering the consumer-friendly benefits of 21st-century mobility options.
All this comes, conveniently for both provincial parties, at a time when Uber’s cavalier corporate ethics and sinister business model are sapping its appeal. People are realizing that Uber’s infamous US$70 billion valuation is based on its ability to dominate markets and then cut costs and raise prices – without paying taxes. (The latest federal budget will force ride-sharing companies to pay GST/HST.) Uber also wants to eliminate its drivers completely in favour of automated vehicles, rendering its gig-economy drivers disposable. What any of these ride-share companies will do with their users’ personal mobility data – a precondition for using their services – is anyone’s guess and everyone’s fear.
Whoever wins the May 9 provincial election will not be able to avoid a future with many new transportation options, none of which include a capped taxi market.
Compared with the number of taxi owners, there are many more frustrated passengers who know there are now myriad options for getting around other cities in ways that are more convenient, efficient and affordable than here (even without Uber and Lyft, as Austin, Texas, is demonstrating).
Consumers in B.C. want what’s available everywhere else. They like the easy availability of shared rides to get home safely after a night of drinking. Their voices should matter more than the vested interests protecting a last- century taxi system. •
Peter Ladner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor and former fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. He is chairman of the David Suzuki Foundation’s board of directors.