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Archive for the ‘ride sharing’ Category

CUTA Integrated Mobility Report

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I have decided that there is no way to make this work just with a retweet. So this blog post is addressed to mostly to readers who come to this blog because they are interested in how Canadian transit agencies should better adapt themselves to changing circumstances. Unlike CUTA’s approach to transit statistics, this report is not restricted in its distribution and it is free to download as a large pdf.

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 11.30.34 AMIt is meant to be a resource for transit agencies wishing to advance their communities towards integrated mobility.

So if that is something you want to read, start at the CUTA report web page from which there is a download link.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 28, 2017 at 11:32 am

Is MicroTransit the answer?

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Regular readers of this blog will recognize a long running idea of mine, that we need something that is “better than a bus but cheaper than a taxi”. Now back when I was actually working in the industry we had not yet got the sort of systems that we have now that would make this sort of thing possible. But one thing has stuck with me, and that first entered my mind in 1988. I was new in town (Toronto) and writing a proposal for the TTC in response to an RfP on what they called WheelTrans.

TTC Wheel Trans Orion II off

 

They used these Orion II vans for the specialised dial a ride transit service (“paratransit”) offered by the TTC to those who need door to door transit. Of course, wheelchair users are a minority among those whose disabilities make conventional transit difficult or even impossible. But also the number of rides they could actually offer, and the ability to match routes of the vans to potential riders, was very limited. The company I worked for was at the leading edge of demand forecasting, so my proposal was that we would come up with better ride matching software. We did not get the job because the people reviewing the proposals simply did not understand what I was proposing. You have to bear in mind that in 1988 cell phones were a novelty and most people did not have a PC on their desk.

It seems that even though we now have much better hardware and software, there is still a big issue: transit needs subsidy. The recent closure of Bridj in Boston shows that.

Transit depends on subsidies, and if microtransit really is an answer to underused, oversized public buses traveling along 30-year-old routes, then at least some of its backing should come from taxpayers, without the expectation of turning profits.

In this region, the oversized buses have been taken away to run on the overcrowded routes. Some routes now run as Community Shuttles, which have somewhat lower costs (due to a different union agreement) but still run on fixed routes.

Community Shuttle S534

The HandyDART service has a different vehicle – the lift is at the back not on the side – and operates on routes which are based on prior bookings.

HandyDART T710 Tsawwassen BC 2009_0121

There have long been complaints that this service is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of those who cannot use conventional transit, and while some changes have been made, and Translink is looking at more, the cost per ride of this service is much greater than conventional transit – or even taxi services. One advocate even suggested at one time that taxis be used as the contractor for all these trips – but I think he was out of touch with both basic economics and the expectations of most HandyDART users.

DART by the way is the acronym for “dial a ride transit”. But you can’t just call for a ride like you do for a taxi. First you must be qualified, and second you must book in advance. And currently trip bookings are allocated by priority – work/school, medical, other. Unsurprisingly, given the demographics of users it is the second one which accounts for most of the trips. To allow for some spontaneous trip making, registered HandyDART users can buy taxisavers to make subsidized taxi trips.

It seems to me that microtransit has the potential to solve a number of issues.

Havana Bus

What Bridj offered was nothing new, really: services like jitneys and dollar vans act as informal, quasi-public shuttle transport all over the world, and plenty of agencies serve paratransit needs this way. What Bridj brought (and others bring) to the table is super-smart software that formulates routes and spits out pick-up spots in real time, based on demand, for any type of rider.

Pick up variation

The idea I had back in 1988 – and still think might work – is that we could use some super-smart software to provide better door to door transit for all. It should be accessible to everyone. And to make sure that people with disabilities get first dibs we come up with a booking system that works like the dedicated seating on conventional transit. People who can use conventional transit would have to give up their seat if someone who needs it more wants it. If the software is smart enough that can be done without bumping. This ought to make transit much more attractive – after all fixed routes take you from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to be. So if you are saving some walking you ought to be prepared to pay more for that  convenience: people who can’t walk, wouldn’t have to pay that premium.

Both need subsidy, but it ought to be less than the current dedicated system, and it will also be cheaper than running a big bus nearly empty. It will also remove whatever stigma is associated with a specialised service. As the US Supreme Court famously noted “separate isn’t equal” (Brown vs Board of Education).

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Source: Translink Accountability Centre

A number of things need to happen to get this to work. Firstly, the current contracted out HandyDART has to be brought back in house. Secondly the legislation that governs ride sharing in BC needs to be revised. It also needs to recognize that it is quite legitimate for existing taxi operators to expect some protection from predators like Uber and Lyft. While they are currently aiming at getting a monopoly of taxi like services, it is clear that transit is also in their long term strategy. And some politicians of the “anti-subsidy except for my favourite corporations” parties want to facilitate that. So a public service obligation has to be baked in with provision of subsidies.

But most importantly, transit planning for the future has to be for everyone and not just for those who can run up and down stairs. Transportation planning also has to be for everyone and not just those who want to drive or ride in a single occupant vehicle.

UPDATE November 6 2017

Another microtransit company recently went bust – mostly because it could not meet even the most basic requirements of driver qualifications (holding the right kind of driver’s license) or insurance. This article in CityLab explains – and shows that the companies involved were not doing what I envisaged in the post above. They were simply poaching traffic from public transit on their most used routes. Not extending the reach of transit into low density areas ill served by fixed route transit, no matter what size the vehicle.

Incidentally the pattern shows remarkable parallels with what happened in Britain when buses were deregulated and privatised. The private companies are only interested in running profitable services, and local government was even prohibited from subsidising essential services. The result is widespread social isolation and reduced mobility of the workforce. Not one we should wish to emulate.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm

HandyDart users concerned about wait times and ride availability: seniors’ report

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The headline comes from the Langley Advance. The good thing is that the report itself is actually available in the article page and for download from Scribd, so you can make your own judgement about what it says. Of course the press will always go with a negative for anything about TransLink – and I must admit that I have long been critical of the lack of service available to HandyDART users. What I think is remarkable about this survey is that it reports a generally positive tone in the responses.

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The other thing that has to be noted is that very few of the people answering the survey were entirely reliant on the service.

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Now the report does spell out where it was conducted – across BC but proportionately by population with properly weighted response rates. So this includes results from Metro Vancouver – where it is contracted out to an American operator (MVT) – and several of the larger BC Transit service areas.

And my impressions are not those of a user. At the time I worked for BC Transit and then TransLink (1997 – 2004) I was only too aware of a very high level of dissatisfaction. That was not based on an impartial survey but rather the constant pressure from advocates – and dissatisfied users. On social media and talking to people my own age, all I see are complaints. But if you think about it, that is also the case with transit service in general. The posts about friendly helpful bus drivers are few and far between – but the gripes when service is less than perfect are plentiful.

Some of the responses reported seem to be a bit obvious: “71% of respondents used the service to get to medical appointments.” Well that is because the age group of users is heavily weighted to those who no longer work or go to full time education. The supply of HandyDART trips is inadequate to meet every need so they have to be rationed, and those are the three for getting priority. Now, if you are a user who knows how to work the system you ensure that your doctor or clinic is located in or next to a mall so that you can quite reasonably combine trip purposes. But when you book it is for a medical appointment and not just to change your library books.

Of course in recent years many more services can be conducted on line – and as a senior myself I am well aware that the degree to which people of my age group have become adept at using computers. I no longer even own a cheque book and the number of times I actually need to go into a bank branch a year is less than one handful.

Buses in the City of Vancouver are now all accessible: back in 2004 they still looked like this:

TL 2926 on #16 Arbutus 2006_0416

One thing that has not changed is the level of dissatisfaction with taxis – which are used to supplement the inadequate supply of purpose built vans. This is not so much about the vehicles (though accessible taxis are often pre-empted by cruise ship passengers with lots of luggage) as the drivers, who still have a low level of understanding or tolerance for assisting people with disabilities. It is notable that those in Metro Vancouver get much lower ratings than those in other parts of BC.

I also still think that if we had an accessible, door to door, shared ride service – better than a bus, cheaper than a taxi – the overall level of service and customer satisfaction would increase and the need to rely on all those other types of service mentioned in that chart would decline. I hope that we recognize that this is a real need and one that ought to be met by the public sector, since Uber has clearly targeted this market as the one it thinks it will be able to monopolize and extort.

UPDATE   February 10

HandyDART trips to increase by 85,000 in 2017 says Translink CEO: currently, HandyDART makes 1.2 million trips each year and has 23,000 people registered with the service.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 3, 2017 at 3:11 pm

Port Mann Tolls

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Once again I got a last minute plea from the CBC to appear on the evening news to talk about the announcement of an increase in tolls next month. It seemed to me that there was little to say, and that over an hour’s travel for a few minutes screen time not very productive, but they sent a camera man to Arbutus Village and I stood in the park. I did not know that the new technology they use relies on the cell phone network, which is why those trucks with dish antennas are no longer needed. When my segment got broadcast it was very obviously cut short as the sign off was missing. I had been asked what the solution was to increasing tolls – and clearly the CBC did not like the answer. I had managed to get in a shot at how the much vaunted lowest income tax in Canada has been brought about by increases in all kinds of fees and charges – tolls, MSP premiums, ferry fares – and how wages were not keeping pace with the increasing cost of of living in the region.

But it was only later that I realized that I had missed on a real solution. My moment d’escalier was the memory of how people coped with tolls (and SOV line ups) on the Golden Gate Bridge by forming last minute car pools. These days no-one has to risk anything by lining up at on ramps. You can – of course – do it on-line. If the increase from $3.00 to $3.15 a crossing is a real issue for you go check out car pool, rideshare and van pool information on Translink ‘s web page. You can easily avoid the congestion on the Patullo and halve the cost of the toll. You can also share rides on Hitch Planet.

There were a couple of graphics that I had sent the CBC producer that did not make it to air, which is a shame. The first is a good effort by Jeff Nagel using recent data to show how people have been gradually getting used to paying $3. I personally doubt the $0.15 will cause much more than a short term blip, but I do think people are right to expect more increases in future. The toll company blames their rising operating costs – but if interest rates start increasing that will be the real stimulus for faster toll rises.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.00.49 AM

The second one is a bit older, and is from Sightline, and shows how the real traffic data compares to the forecasts

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.04.04 AM

The red line should just dribble across a bit further. It certainly has not been sticking up like the forecasters thought.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 31, 2015 at 8:09 am

BC CLIMATE RESEARCHERS TACKLE LNG, ENERGY EFFICIENCY, TRANSPORT AND MORE

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Sorry about the shouty headline: the UVic Press Release uses all caps and my WP editor lacks a ‘change case’ key. This actually came to me from a tweet. You do follow me on twitter don’t you? There’s now a handy widget over there on the top right if you need it. Some of the tweets do get repeated by facebook, but not many of the retweets. And quite a lot of stuff that I see does not get blogged these days, especially since Twitter changed the way retweets are done that now can include commentary. Today, for the first time, I was able to retweet something with the terse comment “Horseshit!” – something, I now realize, I have wanted to do for a long time.

Climate research – and the long list of projects – is all very worthy, but I am afraid I am very much unimpressed. And I am also a bit inspired by a post in the Tyee which sets out the progressive manifesto 0f what needs to be done once we have got rid of Stephen Harper. So while the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) is doing its five year research project here are some things that we need to be doing right away. That is because action on climate change is now urgent. Like The Man said “We don’t have time for a meeting with the Flat Earth Society“. We do actually know what needs to be done and, sadly, these things seem to have slipped through the PICS net.

First note that they are hung up on gee whiz technology. We don’t actually need any of that. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we know about, familiar technologies and techniques that are held back simply by a combination of out of date policies and inertia. BC Transit was forced to waste money on hydrogen buses (whatever happened to them? I asked BCT but they have yet to reply) when we knew plenty about trolleybuses and extended range hybrid dual powered buses too. Nothing was learned from that five year demonstration project other than it is possible to truck hydrogen across the continent and convince yourself that you are helping the environment.

Transportation and the Built Environment are treated in the research list as two separate programmes. I wonder if the researchers will talk to each other over lunch sometimes? Because we all know that land use and transportation are two sides of the same coin. The best transportation plan is a good land use plan. The best way to save energy from transportation is to cut the need to make motorised trips. Community Energy Planning should have become mandatory fifteen years ago, but Glen Clark shut down the Energy Efficiency Branch of MEMPR – and forgot all about the BC Greenhouse Gas Reduction Program. Most of the advances that we are going to see in the field of transportation will come from a combination of information technology and deregulation. (See Bridj below) There’s a great deal we can do to make better use of what we have but the rules and regs get in the way. Like bike helmets, for instance. By the way did you know that the researchers who did the study that supports BC’s current helmet law have themselves repudiated that study? Protected bike lanes work better to both save lives and encourage bike use – and they are amazingly simple to introduce. As The Lady said, if you want to see change, do it quickly. The Burrard Bridge case is as convincing as any that chaos will not ensue.

Most of the change we need will start happening once we stop subsidizing fossil fuels. Indeed it is quite remarkable how much change is already under way, despite billions of dollars propping up what will soon be a dying industry. The tar sands are already uneconomic, and unnecessary, just as LNG export is a really stupid proposition in the present market. So stop throwing money at oil and gas, and you not only free up some fiscal headroom for sensible policies, but you also give the market the sort of signals it would have got if you had stuck to your guns over carbon tax. Ditch revenue neutral as a policy objective there, keep jacking up the carbon price and spend the proceeds on public transportation – local transit and high speed electric trains for longer distances. Electrify the main corridors straight away (Toronto – Ottawa – Montreal, Edmonton – Calgary) and then start building new high speed railways as cancelling freeway expansions permit. Maybe by then the Americans will have started to catch up with the rest of the world, and we can talk about Vancouver – Seattle – Portland.

What I do see as problematic is that we will probably be better at civilizing the suburbs than getting real change in urban areas, where many more people live in multifamily buildings. It’s pretty easy to put up your own solar panel, and put both a Tesla car and a home battery in your own garage. If you can afford it. It is going to be much harder to get equivalent changes in condos, though co-ops seem to be doing better with things like bike storage. Public housing, of course, has to go back on the agenda. It is not enough to make the existing housing stock more efficient when so much of it is out of range of the middle class, let alone the people who struggle on unlivable wages and such welfare assistance as survives. I do not see any work being done by PICS on environmental justice. But make no mistake, we do have to tackle the issue of the lack of jobs in range of affordable housing in transit deprived areas. We do need to think about how our energy policies can be used to create better employment prospects for our own population rather than simply looking to exploit export markets for barely transformed raw materials. “Researchers will also identify opportunities to substitute timber products for carbon-intensive steel, concrete or plastics used in many sectors, including the building industry.” Start first by banning the export of raw logs to ensure that there will be some local industry to produce these wonderful things.

I am really against spending so much on building technologies – where the potential savings in fossil fuels in BC are limited – when you have no plan to tackle the major user of liquid fuels – personal transportation. Again, we know that old fashioned ideas like trolleybuses, trams and interurbans – even diesel buses, for goodness sake – produce far less ghg per passenger kilometre than single occupant internal combustion engine cars and trucks. So we really do not need any more research on  “the distribution potential of alternative fuels including compressed (CNG), liquefied (LNG) and renewable (RNG) natural gas.” Even if every car could be electric, zero emission at a wave of a magic wand we would still have all the present problems of traffic, road deaths and urban sprawl. There is even less saving in ghg in having a carbon zero or even positive reduction in CO2 building if it is stuck out in the middle of nowhere – and everybody is driving to and from it! On the other hand, increasing bus service frequency and reliability – mostly by paint on the streets – is a well established technique for increasing transit use – and it doesn’t all come from cannibalising walking and cycling. Much of it comes from unpaid chauffeuring.

The article on Bridj really got me thinking. First note that this service is actually delivering something slower in downtown DC than can be achieved on a bike. But then this guy is also wasting time “20 minutes to shower and change” after his ride. Imagine someone from Copenhagen or Amsterdam writing that. Bridj could be a serious challenge to transit – much more than Uber and Lyft which are aimed at the taxi market. Or it could be a very useful supplement, and work much better than Community Shuttle service does in the suburbs. Indeed, when you look at how it works, isn’t that a good description of what HandyDART was supposed to do? And how about we simply abandon (once again) the old “separate but equal” philosophy, and instead of having a segregated service for people with disabilities – which actually does not work very well at all – but have a service which anyone can use. But is cheaper to deliver because you separate out the paying for it from using it. $5 for a ride on a profit making service? If the math is right, that is cheaper than most Community Shuttles, and much less than HandyDART. The driver, of course, would continue to help those who need assistance for door to door movement. As I have always said, in the low density areas (which includes most of Vancouver south of 12th Avenue) we need something better than a bus but cheaper than a taxi. Bridj isn’t going to attract people who can use really good transit. But then we don’t actually have that in much of the region, and it is not at all clear that we will turn out to be ready to pay for more of that yet. Oh, and before I forget, we would also need to sort out a much more equitable transit tariff, based on ability to pay, but that is a subject for another day.

More about Uber and the “sharing economy”

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Back in the middle of the month I reported on a City Conversation which looked at the issue of the taxi shortage in this region, and the reaction to Uber. If you didn’t read it then, can you look at it now – and especially the comment by MB, which talks his experience as a taxi driver.

I get all sorts of “pitches” in my inbox every day. Usually invitations to meetings in places far away (now if they included airfare and hotel I might even be tempted) or books to review. The invite to read the paywalled Nation has become a regular. On the whole my campaign to find links to free rather than paywalled sites has been lagging. I am pretty sure that most people find ways to get to content that I am not going to discuss. In this case I wanted to read today’s article about Uber and the Taxi Industry, just to see if it adds anything to what appears on this blog already. So I got the proffered free access behind the paywall for reviewers. The article in question is “adapted from a paper produced as part of the Future of Work Project, an inquiry supported by the Open Society Foundations.” So I rather thought that there might be an open source version of it somewhere. If there is, my Google technique needs to be improved.

Writing from a place where Uber is already established and basing the article on interviews with the people impacted – mostly taxi drivers – gives a good insight into possible outcomes here. John Liss used to drive a cab himself and his experience mirrors that of MB. In fact most of the article addresses the issue from one that was hardly touched on at the City Conversation.

The rapid growth of Uber has profound implications for both taxi drivers and the industry. Are Uber drivers earning full-time living wages? Are they protected from arbitrary or discriminatory dismissal? Can they support their families? What does this mean for the future of work?

Well, that’s all very well, but should there not also be some coverage of the needs of the users?  Well there is this

But Uber has no requirement to serve the public. Indeed, there is a strong race, class and age bias as to who can utilize the service. You have to own a smartphone, which has an average cost of more than $500. Uber requires customers to pay with a credit card, cutting off those with no or poor credit. Until recently, the company had no wheelchair-accessible vehicles in Virginia, and continues to lack adequate services for the disabled in many places.

which I think does reflect some of the remarks I heard. There is also the issue of “surge pricing” which means drivers on Uber get to profit from times when there are peaks of demand – which was also discussed if not in the context of Hurricane Sandy.

The general conclusion seems to be that drivers for Uber have ended up earning pretty much the same as cabbies – and with all the attendant risks (pay up front, hope you get enough rides, no benefits) and once again the company that developed an app makes the big money.

As National Taxi Worker Alliance organizer Biju Mathew said, “It’s drivers and millionaires against the billionaires.”

So not different enough, I think to allow Uber in here even if they can be persuaded to play by the rules – that is to say the rules of society rather than their own. Which, according to Liss are stacked against the drivers.

But there is also the broader issue of the public interest. We need better alternatives to driving ourselves everywhere, and the current suite of options is not adequate. But simply relying on private sector initiatives and the market economy is unlikely to address these issues in a way that will satisfy anyone. In the same Nation there is a further examination of the “sharing economy” based on an examination of Uber and AirBnB.

“Now, despite over five years of official recovery, the sharing economy offers some people, like cab drivers, the prospect of real wage cuts, and others, like people with a spare bedroom, a way to supplement stagnant incomes. The sharing economy is a nice way for rapacious capitalists to monetize the desperation of people in the post-crisis economy while sounding generous, and to evoke a fantasy of community in an atomized population.”

So not much to cheer about there then. Actually I did notice something that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope.

“Uber’s a different story in New York, where all drivers have to be certified by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the cars are all regular cabs or car-service vehicles. Every Uber-hailed driver I’ve spoken with in New York likes the service, because it delivers more paying riders than they’d otherwise have.”

So it seems that Uber can work in a regulatory environment. It is also possible I think that the fleet of vehicles and the number of drivers could also be supplemented at need under such a system. In New York you see “car-service” vehicles all the time. They tend to be black, and are often upmarket sedans and SUVs as well as limousines. If you are staying in Brooklyn and you have an early morning flight out of Newark, they are probably the only practical way of completing the trip – short of sleeping overnight at the terminal. I do not know about Uber cars, but from these articles it seems that there are some attempts at both quality control and market segmentation.

Liss does give some insight too into how different cities and states have developed regulated taxi systems. What they seem to have in common is that having evolved as cars proliferated they then became stuck at the point in history when the regulation was imposed and have changed remarkably little since. It does seem that change is both necessary and desirable, but not that all attempts at control should be abolished overnight.

One of the more curious meetings I had when at Translink was with a lawyer. He had noticed numbers of people left behind at bus stops as he drove through Vancouver towards downtown, and he wondered if there was some way that people could be picked up to utilize the empty seats that were going the same way anyway. I had to disabuse him of the notion that the public transit provider – or the taxi industry – would welcome such an innovation. But this kind of ride sharing does happen. On the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco it has become established and officially recognized that people will wait at a point where single occupant cars can pull up and load enough people to get into the HOV lanes and share the cost of the toll. I somehow doubt that anyone has thought of this at the Port Mann.  Hitch Planet hooks up people making trips within BC but does not seem, so far, to have tackled shorter trips with Metro. Jack Bell has expanded from simply organising commuter car pools  with an app of its own which can also handle one time trips.

Liss seems to be mainly concerned about the people who work in the taxi industry, and I must admit that cab drivers in BC are – as in so many other places – at the bottom of the food chain. I had hoped he would also look at why Uber has become so popular with users. Yes it has sharply reduced the number of cab rides, but I think it must also have greatly increased the size of the market, and probably diverted some people from transit in the process. It also seems to me that in the longer term a company with Uber’s track record is bound to target the transit market and cream off traffic on the most productive routes. This is exactly what happened in Britain (outside London) when buses were deregulated. There is now a distinct gap between denser urban areas where buses are frequent and reliable, and rural areas where buses are almost entirely absent. Greater Vancouver could be very much at risk if the disrupters start to take an interest in transit. And that is not so unlikely in a future where the public authority has to compete with one arm tied behind its back.

So, no real conclusions other than I recommend reading the Nation articles if this topic held you long enough to still be reading.  The current regulatory framework for taxis in Vancouver is far too biased towards the established license holders, and has resulted in a shortage of taxis – compared to other Canadian cities. It has also lead to people developing all sorts of ways of accommodating these rides. The trip diary survey shows that around 10% of car trips are to take someone to where they need to be – often with an empty return trip. The airport has even set up a “cell phone parking lot” to cope with one of the more obvious needs. Yes, the Canada Line helped, but lots of people need to get somewhere other than downtown. New technology does offer us ways to use the vehicles that currently stand idle for most of the time. And there is a real need for opportunities to make extra money for a lot of people. Yes it would be better if there was a higher minimum wage and a really good social safety net for those in need of supplementation to their incomes. Neither of those seem remotely likely in present day Vancouver, BC, Canada, so let us have a sensible conversation about how we can increase mobility in the region.

Here’s a place to start: Helsinki

“Passengers request a shuttle service on their phones and Kutsuplus computes the best way to get everybody where they need to go, based on real-time data. It also indicates how long it would take to complete the trip both with Kutsuplus and with other modes of transport.”

“[Uber] is an approach that works fine in America, where walking is rarely an option and public transport mostly nonexistent.”

Read more here

Bits keep adding themselves to this story. I saw this link in the February 3 edition of The Direct Transfer (something you might want to consider subscribing to). It comes from Bloomberg and the story is extraordinary. Google is developing its own ride hailing service, in direct competition with Uber a company it has been funding itself.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 29, 2015 at 5:42 pm

Uber seeks to return to Vancouver

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I’m sorry that this story comes from a paywalled site. The Globe and Mail reports that Uber has had a meeting with Councillor Geoff Meggs who “said there will be a motion to council this week to freeze the status quo for six months while staff study the issues – past the election in November.” He also acknowledged that this will have to be treated as a regional issue even though “each municipality in the Lower Mainland has its own rules on taxis.”

Mohan Khang of the BC Taxi Association knows he can rely on the Passenger Transportation Board. They turned Uber down two years ago and are highly unlikely to do any different next time. Why? The PTB actually controls who can have a taxi license, even though they are issued by municipalities.

Section 28(1) of the Passenger Transportation Act states that the Board may approve an application if the Board considers that

  • (a)    there is a public need for the service the applicant proposes to provide under any special authorization,

  • (b)    the applicant is a fit and proper person to provide that service and is capable of providing that service, and

  • (c)    the application, if granted, would promote sound economic conditions in the passenger transportation business in British Columbia.

So it actually does not matter what any one city decides to do. The provision to “promote sound economic conditions in the passenger transportation business in British Columbia” means that the established taxi operators’ interest overrule any and all other considerations. Uber could indeed try to satisfy the requirements that there is a need – simply on the grounds that there are fewer taxis here per thousand population than anywhere else in Canada. They could also show that they are working in Halifax, Montreal and Toronto. All the BCTA has to do is point to the impact services like Uber and Lyft have had in cities in San Francisco – where taxi use was more than halved – and the PTB will be obliged to reach the same decision as it did last time.

It has become something of a truism that regulators become the client of the industry they are set up to regulate. That is demonstrably the case with the National Energy Board and the oil industry. While other places have sought to deregulate taxis or to operate on the basis that the public interest in plentiful, affordable and convenient access to mobility services is more important than the survival of existing providers, that has not happened yet in BC. It is not likely to change any time soon.

The people who drive taxis are not the people who drive the industry or the PTB. The people who make significant amounts of money from taxis are those who own licenses. Although these are issued by government they can be traded on the market, and thus, due to their scarcity, acquire significant value. The man (and it is usually a man) driving the cab has to rent the license from its owner. He also has to rent the cab and pay for its fuel, maintenance and access to the dispatch system. A cab driver does not start to earn any money until he is at least halfway into his shift and even then will be very fortunate to clear more than minimum wage. He will do better if his cab also has the even rarer YVR permit – which also means the taxi has to be licensed in Richmond as well of the municipality where it is based.

So for Uber – or anyone else – the task is to get the legislation changed. And while there might well be many people who would like to see that, the people who control the industry also have considerable political weight, not just because they are contributors to party funds but also because they claim that they can deliver votes from the people and communities that rely on employment in the industry. So far as I am aware, no politician in BC has ever tried to test the validity of that claim.

The virtues – or otherwise – of Uber do not matter. The public need for greater access to demand responsive transportation does not matter. Political power is what matters. Geoff Meggs can have as many meetings and as much research as he cares to commission. It will not make any difference to the outcome.

POSTSCRIPTS

I have now seen another post on the same issue from The Georgia Straight – which, of course, isn’t paywalled

The issue of taxi licensing in Greater Vancouver and a possible solution is presented by Ben Proctor in his recent (April 2104) Masters of Public Policy Thesis at SFU. I am indebted to Neil Salmond for this link. The research confirms what I have been saying on this topic. His proposed solution is practical but still requires a politician with considerable courage and willingness to take on a powerful and deeply entrenched private interest group. Both John Horgan of the NDP and Todd Stone in their recent comments regarding Uber show that neither has any intention of changing the present arrangements.

The real issue is that taxis are expensive and not as readily available as needed. Licence owners make a lot of money. Taxi drivers very little – but carry all the risk. Uber ought to be a better system but isn’t. Once again the drivers take all the risk, the company all the profit. Lots of seats in cars are empty: average occupancy of the cars on the road is around 1.4. Most cars are only in use for an hour or so each day. Much of the fleet sits idle most of the time. There are clearly opportunities to make better use of the resources tied up in private cars. The PTB and Uber are both significant blockages on the path to progress towards better, more efficient personal mobility.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 29, 2014 at 12:23 pm