Uber town-car service shut down in Vancouver by B.C. Passenger Transportation Board

At 3 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, Natasha Neale found herself walking 10 deserted blocks from the nearest bus stop to her home. “There weren’t any cabs,” she says exasperatedly. “There are never enough cabs.”

Ordinarily, Neale, who works the door at Chinatown’s Fortune Sound Club on weekends, would have used her smartphone to order a car from Uber, the on-demand town-car service that operates in more than 20 cities. Seven minutes and $15 later, she would have been home. But due to a ruling earlier in the week by the province’s Passenger Transportation Board (formerly the Motor Carrier Commission), Uber’s services had been effectively shut down. “So I spent a half-hour on the bus and then walked home alone in the cold,” Neale says, adding: “Not very safe.”

San Francisco–based Uber arrived in town quietly this past summer with a “soft launch”. Clubgoers, socialites, media, and “influencers” fuelled its growth by word of mouth, the secrecy adding to its exclusivity. Occasionally, the company offered free rides to tony restaurant openings or Vancouver Fashion Week parties, all with the caveat that publicizing “secret” Uber too widely before its official launch would overload the service.

Uber users downloaded the company’s app and, after providing some basic information, scanned a credit card into the system. Once registered, passengers used the app’s GPS locator to digitally hail a driver to their location. Riders were given the driver’s name, licence-plate number, and user-generated service rating (out of five stars). A real-time map charted the vehicle’s progress to the pickup location and updated the waiting time. The driver, typically, texted to announce his arrival. At the end of the journey, the user’s credit card was billed (tip included), and a detailed receipt—for 30 percent above regular taxi rates and featuring a map of the route travelled—was sent to the subscriber’s registered email account.

But in late November, on the eve of the company’s public launch, the PTB officially notified Uber that the province’s mandated minimum rate for limousines is $75 per trip, regardless of distance travelled or duration.

“Yes, we knew about the $75-per-trip mandate when we looked at entering the Vancouver market,” Uber cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick tells the Georgia Straight by phone from Los Angeles. “Of course, almost no one was abiding by that rule. Even today, you can call virtually any limo company in town and get rides for far less than $75. And that’s not just the airport limousines that have an exemption from the rules and charge nearly half that.”

Kalanick points out that Uber is not a limo company but a “lead generator” connecting customers to the nearest transportation provider, i.e., a driver with a vehicle, meaning an SUV or a town car. He is also sanguine about the obstacles Uber faces when breaking into new markets. Uber’s business model has met with resistance from various transportation providers in many of the cities in which it now operates. “In Washington, D.C., they tried to pass a law overnight to outlaw on-demand sedan services,” he recalls. “But we had so many users who took to social media and complained, that the motion was dropped the next morning.” Vancouver’s regulatory hurdles, he adds, are some of the most challenging Uber has faced to date.

Kalanick and his Vancouver team are hoping that public opinion works in their favour again after sending out a November 22 email to users outlining the PTB’s intent to enforce the existing legislation. The #UberVanLove hashtag blew up on Twitter after the email urged subscribers to voice their displeasure (“abolish taxi protectionism”) to Mayor Gregor Robertson, B.C. Minister of Transportation Mary Polak, and Premier Christy Clark.

Trolling that Twitter thread was Gunter Schlieper, a limousine-company owner and industry consultant. In an interview with the Straight, Schlieper claimed to be the person responsible for notifying the PTB about Uber’s entry into the Vancouver market. Although not against the company’s business model of online dispatching per se, he is concerned about public safety and the long-term viability of the limousine industry if Uber is allowed to operate in the Lower Mainland.

“You can’t run a limousine 24 hours a day and only charge what they’re charging and still keep up the maintenance on the vehicle,” Schlieper says. “I’m afraid that with the Uber model, it’s going to be a race to the bottom for everyone.”

Although he is staunchly against some of Uber’s practices, he saves most of his anger for the PTB. “They’re useless,” he says, “appointed by the government but with no background in the industry. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

As an example, Schlieper points to one of several Byzantine loopholes in the law: “If Uber were running stretch limos instead of sedans, then they would legally be considered buses and could charge whatever they wanted. I couldn’t have complained to the PTB. So the more people you carry, the fewer regulations you have to follow. Does that make sense to you?”

Jan Broocke, director and secretary of the Passenger Transportation Board, backs up Schlieper’s claim. “Any vehicle with 11 or more passengers is subject to a different classification and rate structure,” she says. “But Uber is running town cars and SUVs, and the regulations for vehicles serving 11 or fewer passengers have been in place since the spring of 2011.”

Asked if the PTB would acknowledge and possibly approve Uber’s business model of on-demand sedan service, Broocke says the board is duty-bound to consider any application that comes before it. However, she says a similar application from a limousine company was rejected a few years ago.

In the meantime, Kalanick and Vancouver Uber are hopeful that some accommodation can be reached between Uber, the taxi and limo companies, and consumers. “This is a product that people want and there should be a way for the market to allow for it,” he says.

Schlieper warns that consumers should be careful what they ask for. “I want the minimum rates gone too, but eventually, if it keeps getting cheaper and cheaper for a discretionary item like a limousine, eventually, the limos aren’t going to be any different than a big taxi.”

On the East Side, Neale just wants to get home safe and sound. “I wish Uber could go back to its testing phase when no one knew about it,” she says wistfully. “I mean, it’s only going to get colder, right?”

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Nov 29, 2012 at 4:01am

NO FUN Vancouver earns is reputation once again.

mr jim 374

Nov 29, 2012 at 4:18am

I have been to several american cities that offer similar town car services and they are far preferable to to taxis to me personally. These cities all still have thriving taxi and limo industries. I Live in the valley so when i go downtown to catch a band at a club and want to have a few, my option is a $150.00 plus hotel because it is cheaper than a cab even if you could find one to take you here. Downtown manhattan to jfk cost me $80.00 flat rate. Downtown seattle hotel to safeco field,$ 20.00 flat rate both in nice towncars. Another example of vancouvers podunk ways

Jonathan S

Nov 29, 2012 at 12:39pm

Silly girl -- doesn't she know that she's supposed to ride her bike? <tongue firmly in cheek>

Duane Storey

Nov 29, 2012 at 12:55pm

I absolutely agree with the person in the article - there are never enough cabs in the city. I have waited 30 minutes on days just to find a taxi, and when it's raining even longer. It's amazing when you compare Vancouver taxi service with cities like New York or San Francisco. It's really embarrassing.

Jason Bailey

Nov 29, 2012 at 2:47pm

I am a huge fan of Uber and used it regularly. In Vancouver, cabs are impossible to get, drivers are rude and reckless drivers. They could give a sh#t about customer service. Plus they always want cash. Uber was comfortable, clean, drivers we spectacular, and I didn't have to worry about cash or tracking expenses. I used them to pick up my kids and get them home safe from parties and such. The PTS is a sham. It is their to protect the Taxi license monopoly, not to protect consumers and tax payers.

James Unger

Nov 29, 2012 at 4:59pm

Technologies, industries and therefore, consumer needs are changing, seemingly faster than the regulatory bodies are changing. While I appreciate the implementation of regulations, intended to protect the industry and the consumer, I do not support the apparent protectionism afforded a few industry providers who have been hiding for years behind the monopoly, created by apparent over-regulation and “red tape”, thereby strangling competition. Competition is healthy! Is it not? In a few short months, Uber did something to this industry which no one else has done: Offered a great product at a price which consumers are happy with! C'mon PTB. Get with the changing times. We are in the 21st Century! Listen to the demands of the public, and allow Uber to operate and flourish. It will only serve to help the economy, employ the many drivers here who love providing the service (myself included), and provide customers with a great and welcome service! Is that not what ultimately matters!

Juan Carlos

Nov 29, 2012 at 8:25pm

The level of service offered by Uber was so far above whatever else is available in this city, it's no wonder they were shut down. When you have a monopoly of crappy service as do the collective taxis of Vancouver, the last thing you need is a competitor with better cars, better service and competitive prices. I have been using Uber a lot, and given what they offer, would possibly still prefer a $75 Uber ride to a $40 cab ride.

It should be noted how badly Uber is getting screwed here -- there are plenty of Limo services that don't charge a $70 minimum. Hell, a limo from the airport to downtown is $40.

Pretty powerful lobby when you own the industry and have a government regulatory body looking out for you. Stops competition, promotes crappy service with no improvement... and we all suffer for it.

I Just Don't Get It

Nov 29, 2012 at 9:22pm

I guess this makes Vancouver is a small town thanks to the PTB & other backward thinking governing morons.They probably think everybody here goes to bed at 8:30 at night.

Chris Foster

Nov 29, 2012 at 9:50pm

This is like saying Timmies can't open in a town because Starbucks is already there. If Taxi's were effective, or even as remotely reliable as this system, maybe it would be different.

Alex Ketch

Nov 30, 2012 at 11:39am

The difficulty in Vancouver in catching transportation especially during the evening is a problem. Many times I have caught a regular taxicab home after a long wait. I have elected not to attend any Xmas parties this year in the downtown area due to lack of transportation home. A service like uber would have addressed this need and benefit everyone....drivers (employment), local business, and customers.