Your Uber driver will arrive … some time in 2018

Despite all-party support for ride sharing, the NDP continues to delay its legalization

Uber made a brief appearance in Vancouver in 2012 before being shut down by the Passenger Transportation Branch | Photo: Prathan Chorruangsak,
The BC Green Party wants it. The BC Liberal Party wants it. The B.C. tech community really, really wants it. The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade wants it. And according to polls, 70% of Vancouverites want it.

So why is the BC NDP government dragging its feet on ride- sharing legislation that would allow Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies to operate legally in B.C.?

The answer may be that Surrey taxi drivers don’t want it, and neither does Premier John Horgan’s chief of staff.

While Horgan has defended his government’s decision to delay ride-sharing legislation until at least 2018, on the basis that there are too many laws that need to change, some political observers point to the fact that Horgan’s chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, was one of the chief critics of ride sharing and a staunch supporter of the taxi industry when he was a Vancouver city councillor.

They also point to Surrey, where a large South Asian community heavily invested in the taxi industry might have punished the Liberals, in part, for moving too fast on ride sharing.

Mario Canseco, vice-president of public affairs for the polling firm Insights West, said one of the top concerns for Surrey’s South Asian voters in the election campaign was the threat that ride sharing poses to the taxi industry.

“There’s a lot of people who had an uncle or cousin who had a taxi licence that they paid a lot of money for,” Canseco said, “and they were worried about the fact that, with Uber coming in, or any other ride-hailing service, those licences were going to be obsolete.”

Of the nine ridings in Surrey, the Liberals retained only three; the rest went NDP.

Among the Liberal MLAs to lose seats to the BC NDP was Peter Fassbender, the Liberal MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood, who, as minister responsible for TransLink, was one of the Liberals’ point men on ride sharing.

Horgan said there are six pieces of legislation that need to change to allow for ride sharing, and that the Liberals had not made much progress in making the necessary changes when they announced in the spring that ride sharing would be in place before the end of the year.

“When we took government, we found that they had not made a great deal of progress,” Horgan said. “We want to make sure not that we do this quickly, but that we do it correctly.”

The B.C. taxi industry is a significant lobby that has donated heavily to the NDP and Liberals. It has raised legitimate concerns about opening up the industry to competitors that might not face the same costs or regulatory burdens.

“They’re welcome to come into B.C., provided they meet the safety standards, and of course there has to be an even playing field,” said Mohan Singh Kang, president of the BC Taxi Association.

While on city council, Meggs was a taxi-industry defender and a ride-sharing critic. Whether he has influenced NDP ride-sharing policies is pure speculation. Meggs did not respond to an interview request from Business in Vancouver.

“There’s no question that your chief of staff is going to be influential in the decisions you take,” Canseco said. “I just don’t think it’s a particularly important matter for the NDP right now.”

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, who is pushing a private member’s bill on ride sharing, doesn’t think Meggs is behind the NDP foot-dragging on ride sharing but thinks the NDP is getting pressure from the taxi lobby.

“I don’t think Geoff Meggs is a barrier,” he said. “I think that the lobbying, without any doubt, has been effective.”

Just three days after the NDP announced a consultation process for ride sharing, Weaver tabled, for the third time, a private member’s bill on ride hailing.

While the Liberals might support Weaver’s bill, it can be voted on only if the NDP calls for debate on it, which seems unlikely.

Horgan said he has discussed the issue with Weaver and made it clear he thinks there are still too many legal issues to resolve.

“I’ve told him there are over half a dozen pieces of legislation that will require amendment to change the status quo for ride hailing, ride sharing and taxis in British Columbia,” Horgan said.

In a statement issued on the NDP’s delay of ride-sharing legislation, Uber questioned the need for consultations with the taxi industry.

“Ride sharing is different than taxi, just as carpooling and limos are different,” the company’s statement said. “There is no reason why ride sharing must be held up during the taxi review.”

Although there is strong public support for services like Uber, the ride-sharing industry may have alienated public agencies like the passenger transportation branch (PTB).

Uber set up in Vancouver briefly in 2012 before being shut down for being unco-operative and unresponsive. Government communications in publicly posted freedom of information requests show a company that appeared to be indifferent to PTB questions.

Uber ignored requests for information from the branch, which eventually sent it a cease-and-desist letter.

More recently, an illegal ride-hailing service called Udi Kuaiche, which caters to Chinese-speaking clients, has been recruiting drivers and operating without a licence in the Lower Mainland. It is just one of a handful of lesser-known ride-sharing services that the PTB says have been recruiting drivers and that might be operating illegally in B.C.

They include: Longmao, U Drop, RaccoonGo, GoKabu, Dingdang Carpool and AO Rideshare.

The PTB has issued warnings to drivers that they could be fined $1,150 and sanctioned for failing to disclose commercial use to their auto insurers.