As the B.C. government and municipalities struggle with how, or if, to regulate ride-sharing giant Uber, several smaller companies in the Vancouver region primarily catering to the Chinese market are quietly operating under the radar of regulators.
Ride-sharing services such as Uber are currently not permitted under provincial transportation laws and the company and its largest competitors so far heeded warnings from the province and cities to keep away.
But several smaller companies – with their own apps, drivers and customers – have escaped the same attention from regulators.
Of these smaller players, one of the most well-known is a company called Raccoon Go, which targets customers in the Chinese community.
Raccoon Go's chief executive officer Jack Huang, a Simon Fraser University student, said he started the company for many of the same reasons cited by supporters of Uber – complaints that traditional taxis are inconvenient and too expensive. Raccoon Go uses the popular Chinese-language WeChat platform to allow users to order rides and passengers can pay with cash, electronic transfers or by using payment systems offered by WeChat or Alipay, which use Chinese renminbi.
Mr. Huang said Raccoon Go started with services that included moving, airport pick-up and drop-off and short trips for Simon Fraser University students, but now its business has expanded across the Vancouver region.
The province's Passenger Transportation Board, which regulates commercial transportation such as taxis, has previously said app-based services such as Uber are not permitted under the current law. The outgoing Liberal government made legalizing such services by the end of this year a major campaign pledge, though the New Democrats, who are now preparing to take power after the government was defeated in the legislature last week, have been more cautious and have not offered a timeline to deal with the issue.
Mr. Huang insists his business doesn't contradict the laws.
"We emphasize on [providing] a technology and information platform. We're not a cab company. We're just a platform releasing information. The laws and regulations have nothing to do with us." Mr. Huang said.
He added the company has no employment relations with its drivers. Raccoon Go takes a commission from drivers, but he compares it to an advertising fee.
Uber has made the same argument – that it is not a taxi company but a technology service that connects drivers and passengers – but its drivers have nevertheless faced penalties and enforcement elsewhere.
Raccoon Go driver Edward Yan said he pays a commission of 20 per cent to the company. Mr. Yan said that when he applied to become a Raccoon Go driver, he wasn't asked to undergo a criminal background check.
Trish Rorison, communications manager at the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, said the ministry has received complains about such unlicensed transportation companies and has an open investigation.
She noted the fine for drivers found operating without a passenger transportation licence is $1,150. And so far, its staff have issued five violation tickets to drivers.
Carolyn Bauer, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Taxi Association, said the unlicensed ride-sharing should be stopped, warning that such services put passengers in danger.
"Get a criminal background check. Get a vulnerable sector check," Ms. Bauer said, "You don't know who you're riding with, [but] you have to know who you're riding with."
Udi Kuaiche launched its ride-sharing services in the Vancouver region in March and lets users order rides with a dedicated app. Udi Kuaiche is also aimed at Chinese passengers who may have difficulty speaking English, said James Lin, technician at the company.
"A lot of new immigrants come here. When they call taxies, the language could cause inconveniences because they cannot speak English." Mr. Lin said.
Udi Kuaiche says on its website that the cost from downtown Vancouver to the city's main airport is about $23, compared with more than $30 in a traditional cab.
Mr. Lin, who said the business has been developing "smoothly," said he's not too concerned about the lack of regulation in B.C. "It's going to happen sooner or later."
Both companies ask their drivers to submit a copy of their Class 5 driver's licence and valid car insurance. According to Mr. Huang, his company, which currently has about 300 registered drivers, has a "very strict" interview process.
Simon Fraser University business student Grace Tao, a frequent Raccoon Go customer, said she feels safer riding with the company than a taxi.
"[If we speak the same language], I feel more at ease. It's easy to communicate and we can chat," Ms. Tao said.
Uber briefly operated its black-car service in B.C. in 2012, but shut it down after the province's Passenger Transportation Board stepped in. Otherwise, Uber and its major competitors have yet to launch in B.C., though several other provinces have changed their laws to legalize such services. Edmonton became the first city to formally regulate Uber last year and others have since followed suit.