If anyone was still wondering why British Columbia’s two main political parties have been reluctant to allow ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to begin operations in the province, you now have your answer.
Irate taxi drivers are reportedly exploring the possibility of launching recall campaigns against two NDP MLAs – Surrey’s Jinny Sims and Delta’s Ravi Kahlon. Their crime? They belong to a government that has decided to finally join the 21st century and allow ride-hailing to commence in B.C. – a decision that was always politically fraught.
Many of those who drive taxis in Metro Vancouver are South Asian and live in Surrey and Delta, both suburbs that boast outsized South Asian populations. That same South Asian community is a powerful political force, one vital to the electoral interests of both the NDP and the Liberals. Consequently, neither party has been eager to anger the taxi industry because of the political blow-back it would incite.
Which is why the Liberals dragged their feet on ride-hailing while in government, just as the NDP did until it could no longer ignore the broader societal pleas for ride-hailing. When the NDP government finally announced this summer that Uber and Lyft were free to begin licensing drivers, it braced for impact. The anticipated uproar has arrived on schedule.
Believe me, I get the response. The business model that the taxi industry in B.C. has relied on since its inception is being disrupted. Welcome to the club. The whole world is being disrupted by technological change and no one is immune from its often devastating effects. As someone who works in the world of media, I know of what I speak.
The fact is, the lack of ride-hailing services in a tourist mecca such as Vancouver had long been a source of embarrassment. As were the nightly stories about hour-long lineups at the airport for a cab, and tales of drivers refusing to take potential customers out to their suburban destinations. The industry in Metro Vancouver has been inadequate for some time and the only thing protecting it was the powerful taxi lobby, whose warnings of dire political consequences for any government that allowed ride-hailing were always enough to keep a decision at bay.
Eventually, however, the voices of others became too loud, and too angry, to ignore.
As I say, I understand why taxi drivers are fighting this: no one likes it when some upstarts arrive to cut into their business. And cut into it, Uber and Lyft will. The value of taxi licences will take a hit, a huge hit in some cases. People are going to lose money. This is what happens when monopolies suddenly face outside competition. People lose money and lineups for rides at airports shrink overnight.
I don’t think it’s fair that services such as Uber and Lyft can operate without boundaries in Metro Vancouver, while taxis are confined to geographical boundaries that were drawn up ages ago to protect the economic interests of operators in different areas of the region. However, that seems to be an issue that the taxi industry itself needs to sort out – not government.
Drivers with the B.C. Taxi Association, who mainly operate in the suburbs, have long complained they can take a passenger into Vancouver but can’t pick up anyone in the city because of zone restrictions – forcing them to “dead-head” back to Surrey, Langley or somewhere else to collect another ride.
Drivers in Vancouver, however, have defended the zones as a means of protecting the value of their licences. Without that guard against outside competition, the Vancouver drivers would not be able to operate in a way that protects the expensive investment they made to run a cab in the city in the first place.
I can see why the government would not want to get in the middle of that dispute. But eventually, it seems likely that taxis will have to be able to operate under one free market with no restrictions if they are going to have any hope of facing the competitive threat posed by Uber and Lyft.
Given that the province is likely a couple of years removed from a provincial election, it’s difficult to say what price the NDP will pay at the polls for caving in to public demand and allowing ride-hailing. The price might have been much steeper had it not.
I believe the noises being made about recall campaigns are just that – noises. If the script written in other jurisdictions in North America that have allowed ride-hailing is followed, the taxi industry will adjust. And find that a little competition isn’t the worst thing in the world.