Martyn Brown: Bringing out the Irish in B.C. politics

It's time to examine the impact of ride-sharing on the Emerald Isle

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      Saint Patrick’s Day once again. Time to celebrate all things green and Irish in British Columbia.

      Like B.C.’s greenest politician of Irish heritage, NDP leader John Horgan. He will certainly need to bring out his Irish to banish the “snakes” from B.C.’s own Emerald Isle, comfortably nested as they are, in that viper’s den on Victoria’s Belleville Street.

      I know, dear B.C. Liberals, Vancouver Island doesn’t have any poisonous snakes and St. Patrick’s most famous act was also just the stuff of legend. True, true.

      More to the point, as things stand, it may take an act of Divine Intervention to drive the Clark government out power. Or at least the luck of the Irish.

      Only three times in British Columbia’s 146-year history has Divine Providence shone on the NDP. And on this St. Patrick’s Day, B.C.’s Green party are giddy with faith at the miracles its own leprechaun-in-chief, Andrew Weaver, might accomplish. The B.C. Liberals pray he will mostly succeed in diluting the NDP vote, to put them back in office.

      If that happens—as is widely expected—there won’t be enough Irish or Canadian whisky to sufficiently drown the sorrows of the majority of B.C. voters who so desperately want a change in government. And no one will be more despondent than B.C.’s licensed taxicab operators. 

      For the most part, they are certainly not Irish; but they may want to look to Ireland’s recent history as a clue to what the future might hold under the Clark government’s new plan to modernize the taxi industry.

      No doubt, that plan to open our province up to ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft will be widely popular with B.C. voters. Others, like Spare Rides, ASAP Technologies, and Flok are niche operators that are all licking their chops at the potential to gain market share.

      A new Mainstreet Research poll suggests that 52 percent of the public supports that initiative, or at least, what they now know about it. Don’t get me wrong, I too, support opening the system up to more competition. But only if it’s done smartly.

      Back in 2007, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that “Substantial evidence suggests that restrictive approaches to taxi licensing taken in many countries, together with resulting upward price pressures, is progressively leading consumers to substitute away from the taxi industry.”

      It went on to say that “this substitution is economically distorting and will lead to important welfare losses. It is increasingly widely accepted that restricting taxi numbers constitutes an unjustifiable restriction on competition and reduces economic welfare.”

      The Liberals can’t claim they weren't warned. It has only taken them another decade since that report was issued to finally come to the same conclusion.

      Yet now they have jumped on the ride-sharing bandwagon, hoping to score some political points at the expense of the NDP that is still sitting painfully, if predictably, on the fence.

      Cheer up, New Democrats. Horgan’s Irish eyes might be smiling as Clark’s latest populist gambit plays out, if cabbies suddenly decide to fight back.

      The B.C. Taxi Association could do much to help kick-start that effort. It could at least put something on its website to suggest it isn’t prepared to suffer the consequences of the government’s planned policy in silence.

      The experience in Ireland could teach the entire taxicab industry a thing or two about why it should fight like hell. It should use its thousands of highly mobile ground “troops” to hammer the B.C. Liberals on this issue and, probably more importantly, on other issues that better resonate with the public in fuelling anger at the Clark government.

      Silence is for suckers, losers, and spectators who have no skin in the game.

      Ride-sharing could have a pivotal impact in Surrey in this year's election.

      Uber is no slam dunk for B.C. Liberals

      My hunch is, the intended political benefit for the B.C. Liberals from its über-pro-Uber announcement might change in the days ahead in key swing seats in Metro Vancouver. Particularly in Surrey.

      On April 23—in the middle of the election campaign—the B.C. Taxi Association will hold its annual general meeting in Surrey.

      Before, during, and after that event, you can bet that its members, including its considerable contingent of individuals from South Asian communities, will use their private bully pulpits to rail against the Liberals’ reelection efforts.

      Check that. They will if they are politically smart.

      God knows those cabbies should be well motivated to do whatever they can to convince their riders that the Clark government deserves the boot.

      The Republic of Ireland’s own tortured history with “modernizing” the taxicab industry is instructive. It is a country with almost an identical-size population to British Columbia.

      As in B.C., that country formerly restricted its taxi licenses, until the public demand for increased supply led the government to deregulate the industry in 2000. Over the next eight years, the number of taxi licenses skyrocketed by 541 percent, from 3,913 to 21,177.  

      According to a 2011 government review, the total number of small public-service vehicles in Ireland soared from 13,637 in 1999, to 27,429 by 2008.

      The undersupply problem thus became an oversupply problem that subsequently led the government to re-regulate the industry in 2010.

      Even since then, for Ireland’s taxi owners and drivers, the brave new world has not been great.

      The Irish Examiner reported that more than 17,800 drivers left the business from 2009 to 2014. The number of people working in the sector declined by 38 percent, from more than 47,200 drivers in 2009, to below 30,000 by 2014.

      In 2012, Hailo launched its new smartphone taxi service in Dublin.

      It enabled passengers to “get a taxi or licensed car in two quick taps, while drivers earn more money more efficiently”. Unlike Uber, Lyft, or other ride-sharing competitors, Hailo utilizes the existing network of taxi drivers.

      Sounds a lot like the app that the Clark government wants to invest $1 million of your tax dollars to create, to help taxi operators compete with non-licensed, ride-sharing operators.

      Whatever. By 2014 Hailo was Ireland’s market-leading smartphone taxi app. And the competition got even fiercer, much to the delight of consumers.

      Subsequently, Uber introduced UberTaxi and UberBlack limo transport services in Ireland, using licensed drivers. Last August, the country’s National Transport Authority put the kibosh on its planned ride-sharing service, according to the Irish Examiner.

      “The ridesharing transport model, operating in certain jurisdictions outside Ireland, has been to use vehicles and drivers which, and who, do not hold the conventional licences required for taxis or hackneys for the carriage of persons for reward,” said an NTA spokesperson.

      “That model of operating commercial services for hire without licences is not a model that would comply with primary legislation in Ireland, and it is not anticipated that small public-service vehicles legislation will be amended in this regard,” he said.

      Hailo is still the dominant taxi-hailing service in Ireland. It is based on a licensed model that properly protects public safety and ensures government oversight and accountability, while also fundamentally addressing public needs for better taxi services.

      If taxi drivers get organized, they could influence lots of voters.

      Unfettered ride-hailing will destroy livelihoods

      It perhaps goes to show that if licensed cabbies make enough noise, and if the industry is sufficiently opened up to address legitimate supply problems, there might yet be a way of stopping the totally unregulated Uber ride-sharing model in British Columbia.

      That model might be attractive to consumers, until they experience problems and realize there is no meaningful recourse for complaints, abuses, or price-gouging. But if deregulation is bad for licensed cab companies, the unfettered ride-hailing model will be the death knell for thousands of cab owners and operators who have all invested a helluva lot of time and money to get their higher levels of training and to invest in their vehicles and licences that earn them a living.

      As it is, they sure don’t make much and they work their tails off. The goal shouldn’t be to put them out of business or to brutally reduce their take-home pay. Rather, it should be to improve licensed taxi services in B.C. in a way that makes sense for the 21st century and that avoids the worst of the old “cartel” model that has brought us to this point.

      In short, British Columbia’s cabbies and taxi companies have every reason in the world to worry. Everything they own and have is on the line: their licenses, vehicles, mortgages, loans, livelihoods, incomes, and families’ standard of living.

      As much as many of us might all want access to ride-sharing options like Uber that other cities enjoy, we should bear in mind the very real human impacts of our consumer choices.

      There is no sugar-coating it: our consumer gains will be those British Columbians’ material losses.

      No million-dollar app from government will do a thing to mitigate the pain for those who have worked so hard to shuttle us safely back and forth wherever we want to go in our workaday worlds. Uber and other ride-hailing options might make our lives a little easier but they will make their lives a whole lot harder.

      We should also remember the role that government has played in creating the mess we are in. And we should ask about the issues that the Clark government has not yet even considered in moving forward.

      In large measure, the public wants those alternatives because the provincial government, the City of Vancouver, and the taxi industry have all done such a piss-poor job of increasing the supply of licensed operators.

      In more recent years, it has been government that has been the biggest impediment to addressing B.C.’s growing taxi supply problems, especially in the Lower Mainland.

      Only 17 cabs were added to Vancouver’s fleets in the 17 years prior to 2007. Way back in 2008, news reports railed against the undersupply problem and the city vowed to put at least 120 more cabs on the street by 2010. It never happened.

      In October 2015 council rejected its own city staff recommendations to increase the supply of cabs. The Vancouver Taxi Association has also sought to increase the supply of licences, but the city has failed to oblige. The association has had a pending application for 175 more licences since last June. It was put on ice and now it’s all but academic.

      In 2014, four Vancouver taxi companies sought to add, collectively, 78 wheelchair-accessible taxis to their fleets, supported by the City of Vancouver after it had imposed a six-month moratorium on the issuance of any other new licences.

      That would have increased the number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles by 69 percent. It would have also increased the number of full-time taxis in Vancouver by 13 percent. Yet the application was opposed by suburban taxi operators.

      Ultimately, the provincially appointed Passenger Transportation Board only approved 20 of those requested 78 new licences. It remarkably concluded that “the evidence does not support the need for 78 more taxis” and “was not convinced” that approving them “will promote sound economic conditions”.

      Take that, persons with disabilities.

      Speaking of which, how will the new ride-sharing model help people with disabilities?

      In a word, it won’t, or at least not those with exceptional needs, who require special wheelchair-accessible vehicles and who benefit from the additional training that licensed drivers now offer.

      Ireland’s experience was that the number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles essentially was flat after deregulation and even went down, especially in rural counties.

      What will become of the Passenger Transportation Board’s vision for wheelchair-accessible vehicles? It might still apply for licensed operators. But the many more nonlicensed new ride-hailing companies will only be driven by whatever the for-profit market commands.

      Allowing Uber could boost the number of vehicles on Vancouver roads.

      Ride-sharing carries environmental costs

      As I started out this column, Saint Paddy’s Day is all about what’s green.

      Some might argue that having zillions of more cars on the road to “Uber us” hither and thither might mean shorter driving trips that involve fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

      Then again, it just might mean more people will travel in cars instead of biking, walking, or using public transit.

      It will certainly lead to more congestion and to having more vehicles on the road that are not routinely inspected by anyone but their for-profit companies.

      Currently in Metro Vancouver and the Capital Regional District, the Passenger Transportation Board requires the use of eco-friendly taxis for any taxi company wishing to expand its fleet.

      Those new vehicles are restricted by class and fuel consumption, to also drive the province’s climate action imperatives.

      The tens of thousands of vehicles that will be added to the provincial mix through private ride-sharing vehicles will face no such restrictions. They will only make it tougher for existing operators to compete. Companies and individuals that have done B.C. proud by making our jurisdiction a North American leader in reducing vehicle emissions from taxicabs.

      Go to any other jurisdiction in Canada, or pretty much in the U.S., and you will marvel at how comparatively few hybrid, propane, and electric cabs they have. In B.C.’s biggest cities, hybrids have become the go-to cars.

      That is largely because of the eco-friendly operational policy that the Campbell government put in place in 2007-08, as part of its climate action plan. It established strict fuel consumption criteria for all new cabs operating in Metro Vancouver, Greater Victoria, or anywhere else specified by the Passenger Transportation Board.

      Kiss that rule goodbye. It won’t be sustainable from a competition perspective, as the government also lowers its safety standards by eliminating today’s current requirements for Class 4 licences.

      Consumers will notice changes

      And what of the B.C. Liberal government’s much-vaunted "taxi bill of rights"?

      It was another measure introduced in 2008 by the Campbell administration, in consultation with the B.C. Taxi Association, the Vancouver Taxi Association, and other taxi industry representatives, taxi user groups, local government, and enforcement officials.

      That bill of rights has to be prominently displayed in every taxi in Metro Vancouver. It guarantees all customers rights to certain services, as it also offer rights to cab drivers. Since it was introduced, a number of cab companies in Greater Victoria and Sooke have also voluntarily adopted that bill of rights.

      What will happen to that consumer protection feature in the future? Will the ride-sharing companies be bound by the same standards and bill of rights?

      Don’t count your lucky shamrocks. My guess is it too will be abandoned in the name of “fair competition” that sacrifices consumer protection whenever it collides with the wishes of Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick.

      Yes, that would be the same guy you saw on the news belittling one of his own company’s drivers. The guy whose firm has come under attack from its own former employees about its macho corporate culture and allegations of sexual harassment.

      I suppose I shouldn’t say any more. After all, that is also the same company that the New York Times found was for years secretly using a software snooping tool called “greyball” to “deceive the authorities in markets where its low-cost ride-hailing service was resisted by law enforcement”. 

      Then again, that tool only works if you download the Uber app and use it in the first place. I, for one, won’t be doing that anytime soon.

      As the Irish Times also reported last month, the #DeleteUber social media hashtag has allegedly cost Uber more than 200,000 users to date.

      This Saint Patrick’s Day, you might bear that in mind as you also reflect on that old Irish saying, “We're on this earth together, and if we would be brothers; fight-not on your own behalf, but for the sake of others.”

      John Horgan needs all the help he can get to take his fight to the people on May 9. It’s going to be a royal donnybrook, that’s for sure.

      To quote another Irish proverb, “Everyone is nice till the cow gets into the garden.” Especially in spring.

      That “cow” is the election campaign that will soon prove impossible to ignore and that will inevitably put all B.C. voters on one side or another of the fence on issues like ride-sharing, which matter so materially to those we rarely consider at the ballot box.

      As you celebrate Saint Patrick's Day at any of the wonderful spots that the Straight has identified, have fun, be safe, and maybe take a cab. Especially if you get into the Guinness.  

      Think of your expert, licensed driver, who so depends on your business to make a decent living. And while you're at it, be glad you aren't yet paying through the nose for jacked up ride-share rates, which will be sky-high when you most need a ride if we let Uber run roughshod over British Columbians' best interests.
      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British ColumbiaContact Brown at