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?”