Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘passenger transport board

Uber seeks to return to Vancouver

with 4 comments

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

Recommended reading

with 10 comments

There are several stories that are worthy of attention today – but I am not sure that I have enough to add to any of them to justify an entire blog post.

Let’s start with taxis. I thought I had dealt with this topic extensively but when I checked the taxi category there are only seven posts, six of them in 2008 and one earlier. Maybe I just ran out of anything to say – as the term taxi pops up quite a bit in more recent posts, but not as the main  issue. The Dependant Magazine has a good investigative piece on the Vancouver taxi business but to my surprise I found it was dated June 1. I only learned of it today from Spacing Vancouver. It is important news in one sense since the Vancouver tax drivers are getting restive. There is a shortage of taxis here – that simple fact has been long established and generally accepted – and that clearly works to the advantage of those who own licenses, as they have a huge rarity value. In my earlier pieces I suggested that one way to rectify this is to move to a system which controls by quality not quantity – as London does. Anyone can become a taxi driver – provided that they can pass a test on their knowledge of London’s streets. (The vehicle you can use is also tightly controlled.) Plan to set aside two years of your life riding a motorcycle around central London if you feel like trying that. The conclusion of this article is that new technologies – mainly smart phones – and convergence of with car and ride sharing will deal a death blow to the taxi industry within five years. I doubt it – as the regulator here (The Passenger Transport Board) is well established, completely captive to the needs of the industry and unlikely to depart quickly or quietly.

The fact that other cities may see changes faster than we do should not surprise us – as the current fuss about bike sharing demonstrates. They think that helmet rentals through vending machines will solve the issue. We will see. I dislike the helmet, think the current legislation is based on misinformation and should be repealed – but I still bought a new one and will continue to wear it as long as the law requires. I doubt others will be so law abiding.

First time this bike has been out this year

It came as no surprise to me that research now backs up the opinions I formed that traffic circles don’t work and unmarked streets are safer for cyclists than sharrows. But the reason I think that circles don’t work is not “confusion about who goes first”. It is simply based on contempt for the rules that do exist. Where modern roundabouts have been installed in BC they do work – as long as the signage and road markings follow the standards. But small traffic circles based on ‘give way to the right’ are simply ignored. The number of times you see drivers making left turns by going the wrong way round the circle is clear evidence that they know what to do – they just cannot be bothered to comply. A bit like speed limits where enforcement is so lax and unpredictable that it is almost completely ineffective, and on most major arterials most of the time, the speed limit is ignored by almost every motorized vehicle – including, of course, marked police cars.

Yonah Freemark has a good summary of the French commitment to tramways in The Next American City – but if you read this blog and  the comments by Red Frog and Voony you will know all that already.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm