Vancouver Wants to Avoid Other Cities’ Mistakes With Uber and Lyft

When Uber and Lyft finally launched in Vancouver last month, the ride-hail services looked different than in other North American cities. Maybe that makes sense, because Vancouver seems to be the last major city on the continent to get ride-hail.

Most people who drive for the companies sign up via an app and hit the road, but drivers in British Columbia must obtain the same kind of license as taxi, bus, and ambulance drivers by passing additional road, medical, and inspection tests, and paying associated fees. Uber and Lyft must share detailed data about when and where trips take place, and how much they cost—information they have resisted sharing elsewhere for fear, they have said, of revealing passenger’s sensitive data, or their own proprietary secrets.The companies also agreed to always charge above a set base fare for each trip, determined by the going rate for taxis.

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A decade after Uber got its start, and eight years after Lyft changed the ride-hail model by allowing anyone to use their everyday car to pick up passengers, British Columbia thinks it has nailed how to regulate these companies, which have often slipped into the gray areas between transportation and labor laws. Call it the last mover advantage. Government officials in the province have spent years studying how other places dealt with an influx of ride-hail vehicles—and the sometimes unfortunate effects they had on the local transportation systems.

Officials in British Columbia want to avoid the uglier side of ride-hail observed elsewhere. Researchers have noted a downturn in public transit ridership when ride-hail comes to town, a trend that would disappoint in Vancouver, which has invested for decades in transit infrastructure. An analysis by the companies themselves shows they’re responsible for large shares of the miles driven (and thus, emissions produced) in six big US cities. A recent analysis by California’s Air Resources Board found that, in part because ride-hail vehicles have to travel extra miles to pick up new passengers, the fleet emits a disproportionate share of emissions compared with other vehicles (though it also found that Uber and Lyft vehicles are more fuel efficient than others).

Meanwhile, more regulators are concerned about the working conditions of ride-hail drivers, which has led to a new law in California and minimum wage rules in New York City and Seattle that may prove serious threats to Uber and Lyft. (New York has implemented other, first-of-their-kind regulations against the industry, including caps on the number of vehicles allowed to operate in the city and limits on how long they are allowed to travel without passengers inside.)

“Most of the [American] states welcomed ride-share and then thought of a regulatory framework as an afterthought,” says Meera Joshi, the former head of New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and a visiting scholar at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation. To government officials peering from around the globe across the English Bay into Vancouver, the city’s approach feels like a natural experiment, with tinges of woulda-coulda-shoulda.

As of January 24, Uber and Lyft are licensed to operate in Vancouver’s downtown area. Lyft has limited its service to a smaller downtown core. Reports from the city suggest the services don’t yet have enough drivers to make catching a ride fast and easy everywhere. (A provincial transportation board denied applications from two homegrown companies, Kater and ReRyde.)

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