B.C. suddenly open to Uber, ride-sharing

The B.C. government is softening its criticism of ride-sharing business Uber, saying it’s only a matter of time before the service launches in the province, and it could safely co-exist with the existing taxi industry.

“I believe it’s a matter of when, not if, ride-sharing will be prevalent in B.C., and I do believe the two industries can co-exist side-by-side, thrive and grow,” Transportation Minister Todd Stone said Wednesday. “I think there’s a growing recognition [of] the issues of convenience, of choice, of competition, which British Columbians are increasingly expecting.”

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The comments mark a shift in tone from Stone, who in 2014 reacted to rumours of Uber’s launch in Vancouver with the threat of fines against the company and a promise to deploy undercover officers to catch unlicensed drivers.

Stone had warned of “significant consequences” to Uber and its drivers if they tried to operate without the same licensing rules, inspection regime and safety checks that taxi drivers face from B.C.’s Passenger Transportation Branch.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern and we’re going to make darn sure that any company wishing to provide a taxi-like service in British Columbia that they meet the same requirements as all existing companies have to,” Stone said in 2014.

On Wednesday, he said the government has since “had lots of good discussion with ride-sharing companies like Uber.”

Uber has been pushing the government to craft regulations that allow its drivers to obtain special licences and be considered different from traditional taxis. “We are ready to work quickly with Premier Clark and Minister Stone to introduce a new regulatory framework that embraces ride-sharing in the upcoming spring session,” said Uber official Susie Heath.

“In terms of regulations, as we saw from court rulings last year in both Ontario and Alberta, ride-sharing is a new business model that is distinct from taxi,” she said.

Uber has said it would prefer new licensing regulations for what’s called a transportation network company, which would set requirements for fees, insurance, driver checks, GPS tracking and other ways Uber would be different from traditional taxis.

Stone wouldn’t commit Wednesday, only saying existing rules and licences remain in place for now.

“Any significant changes to existing regulatory environment would only be made after extensive discussions with existing stakeholders, namely, the taxi industry,” he said.

The impending arrival of Uber has sparked discussion about taxi waiting times, service levels to the suburbs, insurance, safety, and the complex way taxis are licensed in B.C. “We are certainly hearing from lots of British Columbians who’d like to see ride-sharing come to the province,” said Stone.

Mohan Kang, president of the B.C. Taxi Association with membership including smaller taxi companies in the capital region, said it is critical that an even playing field, with similar rules and regulations, be established before a company such as Uber is permitted to operate. If that happens, “that’s fine. We will compete with them,” he said.

Even so, Kang notes that Uber would not only take business from taxi companies, which use professional drivers, but from delivery and courier services as well.

Sushil Hira, board member of the Greater Victoria Taxi Association, questions the market for another passenger service, saying there isn’t enough business in the evenings for many cabs right now.

Hira said any service such as Uber should be regulated the same way that taxi companies are in B.C.

“We don’t want to say no to any business that comes to Canada, as long as they also pay taxes,” Hira said. That also includes addressing issues such as insurance, business licences and annual criminal record checks — all covered under current B.C. taxi rules.

All of Yellow Cabs’ employees, drivers and owner-operators live in Greater Victoria, said Hira. The business supports about 500 people in total, operating 112 vehicles.

Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs called the government’s new stance an almost complete reversal. “A year ago he was laying down the law,” Meggs said of Stone. “On what basis is he now saying it’s inevitable? Has he made an arrangement with Uber?”

The NDP has pledged to support the existing taxi industry, and in 2014 attempted to pass a bill to hike fines against Uber drivers who operate without a permit.

NDP Leader John Horgan accused the government of “conducting closed-door negotiations to allow Uber to enter the B.C. market.” Horgan called on government to refer ride sharing to an all-party committee of the legislature this spring for a non-partisan debate.

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