On a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro to cover the Summer Olympics, a couple of us spent an afternoon visiting the city's largest favela.
It was like no slum I had ever seen. Rats feasted on trash piled up in narrow alleyways. The sewage system, such as it was, was open for all to see and smell. I watched a garbage truck empty its contents onto the street, garbage bags splitting open as they hit the road, cats and dogs racing over to see what might be for dinner. Although a few police officers were hanging around, this purlieu built into a hillside was run by gangs.
But that is not what this story is about.
When it was time to go, the sun had gone down. In the dark, the neighbourhood had taken on a menacing hue. We were told the best bet out of there was Uber, so we tapped our co-ordinates into the company's app and within a minute, a car was on its way. We tracked its whereabouts on our phones. We could see it turning around, for instance, after going down a street that was blocked by a truck. Fairly quickly, however, the car was making its way down the street towards us, clean and in excellent condition, with an amenable driver behind the wheel.
He knew exactly where we were going as soon as we ordered the car; there was no need to explain anything. (Which is good because he did not speak English.) When our trip was finished, we left without worrying about getting change or figuring out a tip. It was a completely paperless and hassle-free transaction. I enjoyed the identical experience later in Miami and earlier in Toronto.
When I returned home, it dawned on me that I lived in a place sadly stuck in time. That even as Vancouver imagined itself as the definition of urban cool, a hipster oasis of startups and third-wave coffee joints, it had yet to welcome a car passenger service that has become elemental to many parts of the planet. And what a complete and utter shame that is.
Ottawa is the latest Canadian city to clear the way for Uber; the official start date is Sept. 30, although the car service has been operating illicitly in the capital for a couple of years. It now joins Toronto, Montreal and a number of other Canadian cities where the service is offered. (And where taxis continue to operate and thrive). Meantime in British Columbia, the provincial government is expected to publish a "discussion paper" some time this month based on "conversations" it has had with the public, Uber and the taxi and insurance industries. The government's hope is that some time before the provincial election next May, a policy will be announced.
Now, I understand Uber has a reputation for being pushy and may not be the easiest company in the world with which to deal. But not to have it operating in Vancouver at this point is an outrage. The city has one of the worst taxi services in the country; weekends are especially horrendous. Why? There aren't enough cabs, and the industry wants to keep it that way to protect the profits of its members who have licenses. And the people who run the city are happy to let the province decide, so fearful are they of the industry and the apparent clout it wields.
Vancouver has half the number of taxis, per capita, as Montreal or Halifax. In this city, you can wait an hour or much, much longer trying to get a cab on a weekend. But city hall does not care. Vancouver is crawling with young people, Uber's core demographic, yet the politicians insist they use taxis and pay the higher rates they charge. And wait far, far longer than they should have to before receiving the honour of paying those higher fares.
It's insane. It's like prohibiting the Internet because Canada Post carriers don't want competition from e-mail. Uber is merely a small part of the technological revolution that has transformed our universe and made our lives much easier in the process. Few industrial and service sectors have been immune to the impact of that transformation. And yet here in Vancouver, the powers that be are afraid of … taxi drivers.
Well, I have a warning for those same drivers: Brace for impact. Change is coming; the public is going to demand it. There is no sensible rationale for keeping services such as Uber out of the market other than to protect the monopoly the taxi industry currently enjoys. That has to end. And it will.