So the ride-sharing app Uber is urging Vancouverites to sign a petition on its site to put pressure on the City to allow Uber to operate. An ad for the petition invaded my Twitter feed and I decided to take a closer look. Here’s the petition with my commentary. Spoiler: no, I’m not signing.
Uber begins by laying out “the situation”:
British Columbia and Vancouver are home to the quintessential winter playground, shining examples of liveable cities, and a launching pad for countless innovators and trailblazers across many industries.
That’s why so many residents are disappointed by Vancouver’s limited transportation options. To make matters worse, the Province of British Columbia, at the behest of the taxi industry, isn’t putting consumers first or thinking about how new innovations can create better transit solutions for all.
The ridesharing industry is a very new one, but cities all over the world are embracing it as a way to address the shortcomings of mass transit, reduce congestion and emissions, connect previously isolated neighborhoods, and overall bring cities together in a way never before imagined. These are benefits that people are experiencing right now in more than 220 cities around the world — but Vancouver isn’t among them.
Why thanks, we are quintessential innovators…wait a minute. Once we get past the sweet talk, Uber here points to a real problem, but offers a false solution. Transit shortcomings? Better transit is a worthy goal, only the natural solution would be more buses, lower fares and better service rather than deregulated taxis. The context for transit shortfalls is the systemic offloading of costs from the province government onto cities and an unwillingness to cover increased demand by taxes — at the same time as road infrastructure is rapidly expanded.
Isolated neighbourhoods? Granted, but again this is more a failure of urban planning than something that be solved by an app that helps people catch a cab. This is a perfect illustration of the hubris of Silicon Valley: the gap between pressing problems and technological quasi-fixes that enrich the Valley’s venture capitalists. The environmental benefits too may be overblown: ridesharing is certainly better than single-passenger driving but there is evidence that as Uber cuts prices, drivers have to spend more time driving looking for passengers. A car will always be much less environmentally-friendly than a bus or a subway and any system based on more cars will naturally push for more road infrastructure. Vancouver’s history at least has shown this can come at the cost of transit improvements.
Uber isn’t interested in better transit or better public infrastructure: it’s interested in getting market share for its app. Its rationale for entering a city makes even more sense when other options are bad: the shittier the transit, the worse the regulated taxi industry, the better. And all the talk about a taxi lobby that has politicians in its back pocket is a bit rich for a company that hired its own prominent lobbyists in BC, likely only the beginning. In short, Uber is fighting a public funding shortfall with privatization, public policy failures with undersize techno-fixes, lobbying fire with lobbying fire.
The taxi industry is hard at work to shut out innovators like Uber and preserve their cartel. With the lowest number of taxis per capita in North America, Vancouver residents and visitors are woefully underserved when it comes to transportation options. While consumers are left stranded, the government continues to protect taxi interests under the guise of maintaining “industry health” a stated goal of the Passenger Transportation Board (PTB), and preventing “destructive competition,” as cited in countlessPTB decisions as reason for denying applications that would bring more supply, choice and competition to the market. Why do a select few rich taxi owners get the sworn protection of government agencies that are supposed to serve the public?
These are the usual complaints about the taxi industry — and many of them may be right. But it’s far too quick to pigeonhole anyone who questions Uber as a shill for the taxi industry. This is a testament to the closure of our collective imagination, not some conspiracy by the taxi bosses. Deregulation is not the only answer to sub-par regulation. Similarly, being against deregulation is not automatically to be in the same corner as a small, privileged lobby group.
Vancouver has too few taxis and the taxi industry is too heavily involved in lobbying. Changes in campaign finance and changes to taxi regulations would be good places to start to rectify the situation.
Besides, it’s not as if taxi drivers are making off with heaps of cash: the median annual salary for a Vancouver taxi driver was just $25,322 in 2013. The disruption so idealised by Uber will quickly disrupt the lives of drivers who are disproportionately immigrants and people of colour.
If you think the taxi industry is hard to regulate in the public interest then wait until Uber with its increasingly global reach and ballooning economic power becomes entrenched. Trading in one entrenched interest for another will in no way help the cause of rationally planning our transit and transportation systems in our own and the environment’s interest.
This is your chance to send a message to Vancouver and British Columbia officials that everyone deserves a new set of transportation choices.
Riders love Uber because the taxi industry doesn’t come close to offering the same convenience and reliability.
Yes, Uber has quickly found a following, especially so in cities where other transportation options are limited. While this is undeniable, a complicating question is what part of this demand comes from a lack of other options. A recent study showed that over half of Uber users would have taken a bus, a bike, walked or not taken the trip at all if the option wasn’t available — and if transit was better, you can bet this would be even more pronounced.
Uber’s recoil from any kind of regulation also undercuts its commitment to all of its riders. Take the disabled whose concerns with Uber and the like have been too-little-publicized. While Uber makes vague commitments to dialogue and taking the needs of the disabled into account, the lack of firm regulations means these will likely remain unenforced pleasantries. In the relatively small market for taxi-type services, disabled individuals are a group who more expensive needs are suffering first as radically deregulatory companies like Uber take over.
One final element of all this I haven’t seen discussed much is the use of the rating system (the passenger on each trip rates the driver on a scale from 1 to 5 and drivers are fired if their ratings fall below an average of about 4.6) just turns more of our everyday interactions into forced and excessive enthusiasm — a numbers game with big consequences for one side.
Drivers love Uber because it provides higher earnings, unparalleled flexibility (be your own boss!) and increased safety on the road thanks to our cashless technology.
Or are they just afraid to speak out against a company ruthless in silencing criticism? In fact, the treatment of drivers is one of the biggest problems with Uber.
In short, Uber pretends that it has “partners” rather than employees whereas in reality it is simply dumping the vast majority of business risks onto drivers who end up without the protections of a formal employee relationship but often looking very much like workers otherwise. This is the thin edge of the wedge of an economy that leaves workers more vulnerable.
Drivers report having to work increasing hours just to keep up as rates go down once Uber establishes itself, all the while treated as disposable by the company. Drivers have also launched protests and campaigns to unionize to improve conditions. Uber has not been impressed and remains extremely anti-union.
Drivers who own their cars are responsible for maintenance, insurance and other costs. A rigorous analysis of a typical New York and San Francisco UberX driver’s earnings after all expenses found them to be around the average of those of a taxi driver. And this working 70 hours per week! If the worry is that taxi drivers are at the mercy of the taxi corporations then Uber seems to be no different.
If waiting longer for a cab is inconvenient then deteriorating daily working conditions are nowhere in the same league; the way Uber already treats its drivers is the strongest argument to hold the enthusiasm.
Cities love Uber because it connects residents and visitors to a ride when they need one, serves neighborhoods that taxis continuously neglect, reduces DUI incidents and fatalities, and decreases congestion and pollution by taking unnecessary vehicle traffic off the road.
In fact, cities around the world (including Toronto and Ottawa) are fighting Uber and it is hard to believe they are all driven puppet-like by Big Taxi. There are numerous legitimate concerns as outlined above: from worker rights to the concerns of the disabled to transit planning to the uncertain effects on congestion and the environment.
Stand up for choice in Vancouver and sign the petition — because a bold and innovative city like Vancouver deserves bold and innovative solutions like Uber. Let your voice be heard! #VancUBER
Of course, this whole petition is just a marketing exercise but regardless: No #thankouver, Uber. I’m not buying it.