More BC NDP detours on the road to ride-hailing services in B.C.

There is natural disruption in business. It hurts, and I know this from personal experience in media.

Then there is natural defensiveness against disruption in business. It hurts, too, and again I know this from personal experience.

And then there is an unnatural disruption in business, the kind that comes when your defensiveness becomes a defiance of the natural disruption. I don’t have experience in this but can see it in the pigheadedness of our provincial government in thwarting the ride-hailing business and coddling the taxi industry.

The common term for such delay is something with which Canadians are familiar: ragging the puck. Only, ragging the puck is mostly about a team killing time in the game when it is ahead. In our case in B.C., the most notable and absurd North American holdout on such services as Uber and Lyft, we are playing from behind.

The latest provincial timetable has ride-hailing supposedly heading our way in late 2019, a full decade since its introduction in San Francisco. This flash felt eerily like the news this month that there will be at year’s end one remaining store in the Blockbuster video chain in the United States, housed in a remote and technically deprived part of Alaska.

We are the Alaska of the taxi business, in a way, except that we are trying to avert extinction by doubling down. Rather than accept disruption, we are enlarging the pool of those who would be disrupted. (The province will sanction 500 more taxis, among other industry Band-Aids.)

Strange, the John Horgan government sees no problem in intervening in the housing market with taxes that in effect reduce homeowner equity, but sees a real problem with unleashing market competition that would reduce taxi owner equity.

Dealing with the cabbies gives it the heebie-jeebies.

I would not be the first to mention the elephant in the room: the tremendous political clout of the incumbent industry. 

There is little doubt of its role in deposing two Liberal MLAs in Surrey last year – the difference-maker in the election outcome, as it turns out – when that government signalled that ride-hailing was imminent.

An industrial adjustment program would cushion the freefall of the value of the obscenely expensive plates that companies and individuals have purchased in recent years to operate. The BC Liberals would have been wise to offer one. The BC NDP’s seeming strategy is to hold its breath until it turns blue – well, orange-blue – on that admittedly costly matter.

When he was in Vancouver municipal politics, Geoff Meggs was notable in his defence of the taxi realm. He is now the premier’s chief of staff, and it is doubtful he has changed his tune. Why would he? With this issue, public outrage hasn’t translated into electoral courage.

“We know that people are frustrated and have been waiting a long time in this province,” said Claire Trevena, the unfortunate transport minister sent out to relay the obvious in releasing a technical report that had started to collect dust.

“We’re doing things in a very methodical way.”

Which would be terrific, if technology and markets were also methodical. They aren’t. They, like taxis, take detours and avert impediments to get us to our destinations. If there is a method, it is madness – and we gladly pay for it in exchange for convenience and efficiency.

It is an axiom of journalism that we do not cover plane landings. Thus, it comes at no surprise that the rare incidents of safety breaches in ride-hailing vehicles occupy a disproportionate share of the public attention.

Fair enough, there have been idiots behind the wheel in some instances. But somewhere along the line, the incumbents and the government that protects them decided to use this issue to delay the arrival of Uber, Lyft and the like. Were this the case with cannabis.

But this is not a matter of public safety as much as it is of political safety. Until people are marching in the street – having waited for a cab to get to the protest – the Horgan government can profess that the vehicle we want is on its way.•

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.