Uber, which calls itself a ride-sharing service, was in town this week to gauge local interest, even though it is not yet permitted to operate in B.C. The region and the province should welcome Uber — as long it is regulated, taxed, licensed, insured and monitored on the same basis as any public-transportation company.
But no one should be fooled by the term “ride-sharing.” The label has the ring of a populist, co-operative, grassroots effort, in which one person headed down the road offers a lift to someone going in the same direction, where people work together for mutual benefit.
Not so. Uber, based in San Francisco, is a giant multi-national corporation worth more than $62 billion. It developed the Uber mobile app, which allows people with smartphones to submit a trip request that is routed to Uber drivers who use their own vehicles. It has cars in more than 60 countries and 400 cities around the globe. Its goal is to recruit more drivers and persuade more people to pay to ride in those drivers’ cars so the corporation can increase its profits.
That is not wrong or illegal. And the company has been extremely clever. Uber’s innovative approach, which is being copied by other companies, threatens to turn the taxi industry on its head.
But its aggressive strategies occasionally cross the line. The company has had to apologize for directing employees to make hundreds of phony reservations with drivers from competing companies, tying up those drivers and interfering with their ability to earn income.
Those calls were also attempts to recruit drivers. The more drivers the company can attract, the more income it brings in without adding to expenses — drivers are contractors, not salaried employees.
And Uber doesn’t take kindly to scrutiny and criticism. The company made headlines in major U.S. newspapers in 2014 when a senior vice-president was reported to suggest at a private dinner that the company put together a team of researchers and journalists, backed by a million-dollar budget, to probe the personal lives of media people who reported negative things about Uber.
Following the adverse publicity, the official made a public apology, and in a private apology, told one of the suggested targets of the campaign he never intended the company to act on his proposal.
Taxi drivers in Victoria, as in other cities, are unhappy with the prospect of Uber coming to town, with ample reason. But there are constructive lessons to be learned from Uber, which promises more convenience and shorter waiting times for rides through the use of its smartphone app. It puts pressure on the taxi industry to ensure it changes with the times and takes advantage of things such as smartphone technology to improve its service and flexibility.
The province won’t make a decision on Uber until it completes a larger review of taxi licensing. The government shouldn’t dismiss Uber, but should ensure it operates on the same basis as any other car-for-hire company. The taxi industry should not be shielded from competition, but neither should Uber be allowed to operate outside of the rules. If regulations need updating — and it’s likely they do — they should apply equally to all players.
Let’s not pretend “ride-sharing” is anything but an effort by Uber to get a share of the taxi industry’s business, and as big a share as possible.
Fair enough, if it plays by the rules and even influences changes to those rules, but it shouldn’t be allowed to make up its own rules.
Call it what you like, Uber is a taxi service, and those best suited to provide taxi service are qualified taxi drivers.