Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
You could almost hear the cheers when Uber and Lyft, after much delay, started picking up passengers in B.C.’s Lower Mainland last week. But that didn’t stop Doug McCallum, Surrey’s contrarian mayor, from launching a politically motivated war against ride-hailing in his city.
Mr. McCallum ran against ride-hailing in his 2014 unsuccessful election campaign, which earned him the endorsement of five taxi companies. He’s since softened his stand, saying he has nothing against ride-hailing so long as there is a level playing field for taxi companies. When ride-hailing started, he believed it was not, so began to erect roadblocks.
Surrey initially refused to issue ride-hailing licences, which means drivers accepting fares were deemed to be breaking the rules. When Mr. McCallum discovered Uber drivers operating in Surrey, like an old-fashioned, county sheriff, he directed city staff to set up a sting designed to run them out of town. Staff posing as customers hailed Ubers and initially handed drivers warnings, then moved to $500 fines.
It is doubtful that Surrey even had the right to refuse licences. Provincial legislation sanctioning ride-hailing expressly states no municipal council may prohibit it by refusing to license operators. Predictably, Mr. McCallum’s rogue tactics elicited a court challenge by Uber, which to no surprise, was hostile to attempts to cut it out of B.C.’s second largest market. So, in addition to staff time wasted busting Uber drivers, Surrey’s lawyers were facing the prospect of battling an American-based multinational that earned revenue of more than US$11-billion in 2018.
In the end, Surrey signed on to the regional plan, but what the heck drove Mr. McCallum to snub a service British Columbians have clamoured for since Uber started in Toronto in 2012? The answer is the taxi lobby, which is a powerful political force in B.C., nowhere more so than in Surrey.
Driving a cab is often an occupation staffed by new immigrants and in the Lower Mainland is dominated by South Asian drivers. Surrey’s large South Asian population turns out in great numbers to vote and likely sympathizes with the fate of cabbies who fear their livelihoods will suffer with the introduction of ride-hailing. Nine cab companies have also mounted a group court challenge against ride-hailing in B.C. Mr. McCallum is banking his stalwart support for the taxi companies will translate into support at the polls, if he runs again.
Taxi companies and their principal officers have donated more than $5,000 to Mr. McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition party since 2014, according to tables compiled by Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a group that monitors campaign-financing issues.
The same political calculations were likely responsible for the provincial foot-dragging that made B.C. one of the last places in North America to adopt the service.
But here’s the thing. People in Surrey, especially young people who enjoy the Downtown Vancouver nightlife, want ride-hailing. Trains only run until about 1:15 a.m. and taxis are reluctant to accept trips that require crossing municipal lines. Some of this could be solved by eliminating restrictions that prevent cab companies from picking up fares in other jurisdictions. But the taxi industry failed to evolve quickly enough to solve this issue as well as the insufficient supply of cabs during bad weather and peak demand periods and myriad other problems.
So, while people empathize with an individual driver whose business may lag with the increased competition, they don’t weep for taxi companies that haven’t innovated to offer better service. Results from a community survey released Thursday by the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association showed 52 per cent of residents identified ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft as key to improving transportation in the city.
Yes, there are steps the province should take to make the system fairer for taxi companies, like find a way to subsidize them for a requirement to have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in their fleet, which doesn’t exist for Uber or Lyft. But whether Mr. McCallum likes it or not, ride-hailing is here to stay. He knows that and on Friday caved in and agreed to metro-wide licensing terms for ride-hailing.
He did so knowing he’d already made his point; he tilted at windmills for the taxi vote, which who knows, he just might get.
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