Province’s promise of Uber by ‘Christmas’ sparks cab backlash

The B.C. government faced an immediate backlash from cab companies Tuesday for promising to allow ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft into the province by Christmas.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone and TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender said a B.C. Liberal government, if re-elected in May, will seek more input through the summer before finalizing plans.

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“We are very excited to finally be in a position to look British Columbians in the eyes and say ride-sharing is coming to our province,” Stone said. “It will be here in time for the holiday season in December. Of course, that is assuming we’re fortunate to be entrusted with another four years through this election process coming up.”

Opposition Leader John Horgan said an NDP government would scrap the B.C. Liberal strategy and work with the public and the existing taxi industry to improve transportation options, while still protecting small businesses.

“Instead, what the premier and her colleagues have done on the eve of an election is disrupt, create chaos and pit people against each other,” he said. “I think the role and function of government is to bring people together.”

The government pledged to help the taxi industry modernize.

“We want the existing industry to remain competitive,” Fassbender said. “And, in order to do that, the concept of a level playing field — as level as we can possibly create — is really important.”

He said the province will provide up to $1 million to help the taxi industry develop an app that would allow customers to hail and pay for a cab with a smartphone as they can with ride-hailing services.

ICBC will spend $3.5 million to equip all taxis with “crash-avoidance” technology at no cost, while streamlining the claims process and making insurance more affordable, Fassbender said.

Taxi drivers will keep the exclusive right to be hired by phone or flagged down on the street or at taxi stands. “That will again be a competitive advantage for them as existing companies with marked cars,” he said.

In addition, the government committed to allowing taxis to move across municipal boundaries to drop off and pick up at any time and anywhere.

Under the plan, ride-hailing drivers and cab drivers will have to meet the same standards. Those include having an unrestricted driver’s licence and passing criminal record, safe-driving and vehicle safety checks.

Surinder Kang, operations manager for Yellow Cab of Victoria, said taxi drivers took the news hard. “It feels like you’ve taken a left hook,” he said. “This will drastically affect the taxi industry. The companies that have built their goodwill and customer-service base and built up their shares will go down the drain.

“So an individual who maybe a year ago paid $200,000 to get into this business, it’s gone to zero now, right?”

Kang said that even with the government’s attempts to level the playing the field, “they’ve drastically inclined it toward ride-sharing services.”

The Vancouver Taxi Association promised to fight the province’s plan any way it can. Spokeswoman Carolyn Bauer told radio station News 1130 that countless taxi drivers have gone into “enormous debt” to purchase an operating licence and they will have no way to pay it back under the new framework.

“We are not opposed to changes to meet the public’s interest but … the government has completely ignored our interests, and we will use every available legal and political means available to us to fight this unfair government initiative.”

Uber issued a brief statement in support of the plan.

“Today’s announcement is a step forward by the provincial government and we’re encouraging all parties in British Columbia to commit to bringing forward progressive regulations that embrace ride-sharing in 2017,” said Susie Heath, a senior communications associate.

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, who has twice introduced a bill that would enable ride-sharing, said the B.C. Liberal announcement was long overdue.

“What they’re announcing is essentially exactly what I announced two years ago, except they haven’t put the details out for people to see,” he said.

Weaver said the Liberals’ decision to release the strategy on the eve of an election campaign was a “political” move by a government short on ideas. “They’re trying to now brand themselves as tech wizards, but they can’t because they’ve neglected that sector for the past four years.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

— With a file from The Canadian Press

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