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British Columbia Translink CEO tells lawmakers that ride-hailing companies should be priced to complement transit

Kevin Desmond, the chief executive officer of TransLink, the Metro Vancouver transportation agency.

Albert Normandin

Ride-hailing companies can be a valuable addition to the Lower Mainland’s complicated transportation system, but only if there is a pricing mechanism to make sure they complement transit, TransLink’s CEO told provincial representatives Wednesday.

“We want to interact with them … but we don’t want it to undermine the mobility of the region,” said Kevin Desmond, who is in charge of the region’s transportation agency. He was one of more than a dozen speakers scheduled to present to the province’s select committee that is examining the issue, with hearings continuing Thursday.

Vancouver is the only major city in North America without ride-hailing, owing in large part to the fact that the province’s control over the auto-insurance system has meant B.C. has been able to effectively block companies such as Uber and Lyft when other cities haven’t been able to.

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Ride-hailing became an issue during the provincial election campaign two years ago when the B.C. Liberals promised to bring it in by December of that year.

In response to questions from some NDP MLAs about the effect that ride-hailing has had on transit in other cities, Mr. Desmond acknowledged various studies have shown some negative impacts.

But, he said, the ultimate mission of TransLink is to improve mobility in the region, not just try to scoop the maximum revenue for transit services.

“Ride-hailing will affect demand for our service, but if it’s introduced well, it will motivate us to improve,” he said. He noted that Seattle, in spite of having ride-hailing for several years, recently saw one of the biggest increases in transit ridership in the United States.

But he said that if ride-hailing services are unregulated, it runs the risk of traffic congestion that could slow down transit services – and that’s an unacceptable outcome for the tax-paying public using them.

For that reason, he and TransLink senior planner Geoff Cross urged the province to use variable pricing to allow the services to do what they do best: improve mobility and accessibility for everyone.

Per-trip fees could be set that would encourage drivers to avoid already crowded areas or times of the day and prompt them to serve areas that don’t have good transit service.

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Fees could also be set to discourage trips that seem to be cannibalizing transit services, such as short trips only in the downtown area, Mr. Desmond said.

Mr. Cross pointed out that, except in Vancouver, the overwhelming majority of trips in the other 20 municipalities in the region are destined for another municipality.

That’s why TransLink is taking the position that it’s a bad idea to set up a system based on municipal or even regional boundaries. Some people who use TransLink services end up continuing on to cities in the Fraser Valley outside the service area.

The committee is hearing from speakers prior to presenting a report on how the province should regulate ride-hailing, which it has promised to do by the end of the year.

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