British Columbia's Transportation Minister says it's inevitable ride-sharing services such as Uber will operate in the province, despite his government's previous warnings aimed at preventing the company from setting up operations.
Todd Stone said the service, which uses a smartphone app to connect users with drivers outside the traditional taxi system, will only be permitted if it receives the proper approvals.
Mr. Stone's comments, in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, were his strongest comments to date on the controversial service and came as a Liberal candidate in a provincial by-election as well as the BC Liberal Party have made the case for Uber and other services such as Airbnb as part of the so-called "sharing economy."
"Ride-sharing? It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when," Mr. Stone said. "I really think so. If we continue to have the good discussions we're having both with the taxi industry and the ride-sharing industry, there will come a day in British Columbia where these two industries will co-exist and be able to grow and flourish as long as everyone follows the rules."
Mr. Stone said it's clear that many British Columbians would welcome the kind of services offered by Uber, which provides taxi, limousine and ride-share services.
"These are services that would [provide] convenience and choice and certainly competition that I think would be welcomed by British Columbians. The ride-sharing companies just have to make sure they understand the requirements relating to safety they have to operate in," he said.
In 2014, Mr. Stone issued a stern warning to Uber that operating without proper licences would result in thousands of dollars in fines, and he promised undercover stings to bust unlicensed drivers. The company's UberX service has run into trouble in other Canadian cities for operating without securing taxi licences, but it has so far not launched its UberX service in B.C.
In a letter to the minister released Tuesday, NDP Leader John Horgan said his party supports the development of customer-centred transportation options throughout the province, but he is concerned about "closed-door negotiations" under way between Mr. Stone's staff and Uber.
Mr. Horgan suggested those talks were aimed at allowing Uber to enter the B.C. market and would be a blow to the B.C. taxi industry.
Mr. Stone acknowledged he and his staff have met with Uber, but also said meetings are being held with the taxi industry as well.
Mr. Horgan suggested referring the issue of ride-sharing to a legtislative committee this spring to review the whole matter in a way that "will allow us to promote best practices and give British Columbia the best opportunity to improve service and protect the public interest."
Mr. Stone also said Joan Isaacs, the Liberal candidate in the Coquitlam-Burke Mountain by-election, will have to make the case for Uber if she is elected next month and joins the Liberal caucus.
Ms. Isaacs has promised a "strong voice" in bringing applications like Uber, Airbnb and Lyft to Victoria as part of the so-called "sharing economy" according to a party statement.
Meanwhile a posting on the party website asks "Is it time for B.C. to welcome the sharing economy?" and cites Uber as one option of how such a "sharing economy" could benefit British Columbians.
Still, Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs said he is looking for clarity from Mr. Stone, suggesting Ms. Isaacs and the party's views seem at odds with previous government positions.
"People would welcome a coherent policy," Mr. Meggs said Tuesday in an interview, referring to the partisan statements on Uber.
Mr. Stone said there is no contradiction because he is standing by his view that Uber will have to win approval from the Passenger Transportation Branch to operate in B.C.
Uber previously operated its black-car service in Vancouver from May, 2012, to November, 2012, but exited the market after provincial transportation ministry officials raised concerns about the service.
Carolyn Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Taxi Association and also general manager for Yellow Cab, said Uber should approach the Passenger Transportation Safety Board for clearance to operate in B.C. "If you want something in life, you have to follow the proper processes," she said.
A spokesperson for the BC Liberal Party suggested there is an exploration under way that is far larger than just involving Uber.
"The sharing economy goes beyond ride sharing to homes, parking spots and more," spokeswoman Jillian Stead said in an e-mail exchange. "Our party is engaging British Columbians on social media to see how they feel about the sharing economy as well as other issues.
Ms. Stead cited recent remarks by Premier Christy Clark about an interest in choice and convenience among British Columbians provided by reliable and safe technologies. "We believe in a free market – and in governments that listen to people. Right now, in B.C., we're listening."
Meanwhile Uber itself is encouraged by the supportive tone.
"This is a step in the right direction and we hope that all provincial politicians will work with us to introduce a regulatory framework that embraces ride-sharing in the upcoming spring session," Susie Heath, an Uber spokeswoman in Canada, said in an e-mail exchange.