B.C. ride-hailing’s relaunch is dead end for passengers and drivers alike

I suppose the next-best thing for governments to do when they can’t please everyone is to ensure they don’t please anyone.

Case in point is the regime emerging in British Columbia to launch – actually relaunch, because we forget the province smacked down the first effort – the ride-hailing business.

Permit me some restraint of enthusiasm for its arrival later this year, now that the independent Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) has outlined the rules, and let me present the lunchbag letdown of the interested parties.

How can consumers be happy they will not get a break on fares?

How can taxi drivers be happy they will not get a break on their absurd boundaries to pick up those fares?

How can the new entrants be happy when they cannot be all-in as they are in most civilized markets?

The PTB, the final bump on this most meandering, pondering and rocky of roads to deliver ride-hailing after an earlier false start, has issued regulations with all sorts of water in the wine. To be sure it feels intoxicating, but that’s because we have been on the wagon for so long now, even cheapened plonk will taste like VQA.

But we might miss the truth that the twin attractions of Lyft, Uber and the like have been price and convenience. On the former, the new regime is an epic fail; on the latter, it may be yet.

We will be a province of regulated minimum and unregulated maximum fares. Imagine that: another industry being told how little it can charge – but strangely, not how much – at the literal expense of the passenger. Is this truly a consumer-friendly regime?

With its mandated floor rates on fares, the province has chosen to serve the incumbent taxi companies. The new entrants can’t offer discounts, coupons, loyalty points, whatever to entice business, as they do in foreign vistas like Toronto. The taxi rate prevails, and that means the meter starts at somewhere between $3.25 and $3.90 in the Lower Mainland.

But not everything protects the cabbie. In fact, quite less than one might have expected.

The boundaries for the ride-hailing brigade, for instance, would deplete my electric vehicle. The Lower Mainland/Whistler region, for example, extends to all of Greater Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and Squamish-Lillooet. Not only are the boundaries ultra-generous, but new entrants can put as many vehicles on the road as they wish and charge whatever they wish when demand surges.

If the government was trying to protect the taxi industry, it has a dark sense of humour about it. Why would someone stay in a cab fleet when it will be possible now to charge anything when bad weather hits, a concert is letting out, or a bar closes?

Then again, the new entrants in ride-sharing will be challenge-sharing, too. A sizable portion of the ride-hailing drivers are couple-hours-a-day types. They take fares on the way home from work, when they drop their children at soccer practice, or when they get tired of bingeing Netflix all weekend. What isn’t clear is whether this new regime – in particular, its semi-hassle and cost of procuring the more extensive Class 4 licensing – will cultivate the same gig-economy cohort here. I suspect we’re going to see pretty much full-timers in new and old entrants alike – few mortgage-helping roles, mainly mortgage-meeting ones.

Sure, cabbies get to claim the port and the airport as their basic preserve. And even though the industry is called ride-hailing, you will only be able to physically (as opposed to technologically) hail a taxi. Ride-hailing here will be an app that courts a vehicle on your smartphone, not your arm courting one on your street.

Still, the Vancouver Taxi Association feels betrayed. To which many of us can say on behalf of the charter members: welcome to the club, junior associates, your orientation is about to begin.

The Horgan government long ago made clear that the consumer would not enjoy the ride-hailing regimes elsewhere and that the province would adopt a made-in-BC approach. But even its friends in the taxi business would have been delusional to expect the sort of victories Donald Trump expects at the trade table; into its wine has gone some water, too.

What is fair to say is that the PTB did its best to balance the unbalanceable. It was handed a tough, long overdue, insanely politicized task and it foraged as best it could for the few berries it thought we could collectively digest. Its public consultations to reach an accommodation reflected different warring factions in different occupying universes, and we know how happily those sci-fi movies go.

The shorthand is we are getting ride-hailing. Rejoice the chimera!

The longhand is that we are not getting ride-hailing. We are getting more vehicles to roam more and charge what the market will bear – unless it’s too little, in which case the Horgan government is there for you, beleaguered taxi driver, to deal with a sudden storm you thought your votes and support had provided you a safe port to weather.

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