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The last major city in North America without Uber is about to get Uber

A taxi driver raises his fist through the car window.
REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
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  • Alison Griswold
By Alison Griswold

Reporter

Uber conquered North America a long time ago. Except for Vancouver.

Uber launched quietly in Canada’s third-largest metro area in the summer of 2012. But that November, the local transport regulator informed the company it needed to follow the same rules as limousine services and charge a minimum of $75 per trip, effectively shutting Uber down.

The request didn’t fly with Uber co-founder and then-CEO Travis Kalanick (“almost no one was abiding by that rule,” he told a local news outlet at the time). But in striking contrast to most other North American cities, Uber’s usual lobbying tactics (Twitter campaigns, emails to users, heckling politicians) didn’t work on Vancouver.

In late 2014, with Uber rumored to be eyeing a return to Vancouver, the city placed a six-month moratorium on issuing new taxi licenses and British Columbia deployed plainclothes transit agents to monitor for any illegal taxi operators. Over the next few years, the city council repeatedly extended the moratorium.

So it was a very big deal when yesterday (Jan. 23) the Passenger Transportation Board announced it had approved both Uber and Lyft to operate their ride-hail services in parts of British Columbia.

Uber plans to start service by 11am today, the company said in an email to subscribers.

British Columbia opened applications to operate a ride-hail business in September 2019, so this has been in the making for a while. Still, it’s a milestone for Uber and Lyft, which have rarely if ever encountered the level of resistance to their service that they did in Vancouver.

How did Vancouver manage without Uber for eight years? According to a 2019 article in Slate.com, just fine:

So how have Vancouverites handled the lack of ride-hailing? Well, their city has hardly ground to a halt. The percentage of Vancouverites who commute to work by walking, cycling, or transit rose from 57 percent in 2013 to 59 percent in 2017. During that time, the share of commute trips by bicycle jumped by about 50 percent as Vancouver rolled out investments like a network of protected downtown bike lanes. TransLink, the regional transit authority, grew ridership by 5.7 percent in 2017, easily the fastest rate in North America. Andrew McCurran, TransLink’s director of strategic planning and policy, says ridership rose even faster in 2018, by 6.7 percent. Remarkably, a major driver was TransLink’s bus ridership, which rose by 7.3 percent last year.

Short-term car rentals like Car2Go were also popular, Slate reported:

Car sharing is also wildly popular in Vancouver, with 3,000 shared vehicles giving the metro area the most per capita in North America. Car2Go has 192,000 members in the region—more than anywhere else on the continent. Again, ride-hailing’s absence may be a contributor. It’s easy to see how “free-floating” car-share service—meaning you can pick up and leave a vehicle in any legal parking spot—can function as a ride-hail substitute when someone doesn’t want to drive round trip.

The second point is especially interesting because Car2Go, a joint venture of German automakers Daimler and BMW, late last year announced it would cease operations in North America on Feb. 29, 2020, leaving many cities without the sort of free-floating car rentals it offered. That means Vancouverites are soon to be without one popular mode of transport, giving Uber and Lyft more space to fill.

Uber’s (and Lyft’s) green light in Vancouver gives Uber a much-needed win at a time when regulators are scrutinizing it more closely around the world. In the final months of 2019, London declined to renew Uber’s license; New Jersey hit the company with a $640 million bill for misclassifying drivers as independent contractors; Seattle approved new fees on rides and a minimum wage for drivers; Chicago passed a congestion tax on ride-hail services; and India said it may cap the commission Uber takes on fares at 10%. There was also, of course, the gig economy legislation California passed in September making it more difficult to classify workers as contractors, and prompting sweeping changes to the business from Uber.

In short, the global state of ride-hail is far from clear. But British Columbia just made Uber’s future a little brighter.

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