Whether to allow ride-hailing companies to operate in B.C., in particular Metro Vancouver, has left Premier John Horgan and the NDP talking out of both sides of their mouths.
In 2014, as leader of the opposition, Horgan proposed legislation to increase fines against individuals operating a ride-hail without a permit to $20,000 from $5,000, clearly standing against the operation of ride-hail vehicles in B.C. But now it feels like it’s only a matter of time before we will be hailing Ubers and Lyfts because the lack of ride-hailing in Vancouver is hurting its Trip Advisor score.
Why is it so hard for the NDP, who should be on the side of workers’ rights and environmental issues, to frame the ride-hail argument in a way that makes it clear to B.C. residents that ride-hailing is not the answer we’re looking for when it comes to moving people around?
Too often, the argument for ride-hailing comes from the very aggressive lobbying done by the Rideshare NOW B.C. coalition, whose interests lie with the tourism industry. There is no rebuttal presented by our government that has any kind of weight to it. If tourism were sagging, then perhaps those two-star reviews might actually be a problem. Except that tourism grew by three per cent last year from 2016, the fourth consecutive year of growth.
If we intend to keep Vancouver green and beautiful, ride-hailing is not the way to go. Research on ride-hailing shows that these services are not environmentally friendly, as they add more vehicles to the roads, leading to more CO2 emissions. With transportation contributing substantially to greenhouse gases, we cannot afford to encourage more vehicles. We don’t want increased traffic nor emissions that lead to B.C.’s summer forest fires.
In cities where ride-hailing companies operate, we are starting to see the effects of ride-hailing on public transit infrastructure. People dislike their transit options and choose Uber. Ridership then declines on public transportation, resulting in less money for the system, poorer service and more disgruntled customers.
Instead of letting Vancouver slip down this same slope, let’s be proactive and continue to invest in our public transportation. Thankfully, we are already doing an amazing job on this front. Compared to major U.S. cities where transit ridership is down, Vancouver saw a 5.7-per-cent increase in ridership last year from 2016. Projects like the Evergreen Extension, which boasts 34,000 trips per weekday, show that if we continue to work on our transit infrastructure, people will use it.
The thing about ride-hailing is that what I’ve discussed so far only covers some of the considerations we must think about when looking at the viability such services in B.C. I haven’t mentioned the human cost.
Uber, in particular, is guilty of exploiting its “employees” — although let’s be clear, Uber and Lyft drivers are actually independent contractors, a title that denies them benefits — by underpaying them and making use of psychological trickery and other tactics to entice drivers to keep working.
Uber’s insists that a driver can just turn off the light and call it a day whenever and “the decision whether or not to drive is 100-per-cent theirs,” according to Uber spokesman Michael Amodeo. But drivers often cannot make this choice if they are trying to earn a living. With Uber’s cut taken out, and vehicle-related expenses factored in, drivers often pull in an hourly wage just above (and in some cases below) the minimum wage. Some would argue that the competition brought on by ride-hailing outfits is good, but in this case, it becomes a race to the bottom. Who can perform the service requested for the least amount of money?
An increase in driver suicides has been linked to the hardships of trying to make ends meet in the “gig” economy. The story of Doug Schifter is particularly heartbreaking, as the long-time New York City black-car driver, saddled with debt due to serious health ailments and facing a substantial decrease in demand for black-car service, killed himself after losing the fight for better regulation in the ride-hailing and taxi industries.
Some of the problems faced by U.S. ride-hail drivers are uniquely American problems, such as the lack of universal healthcare, but that doesn’t mean that these stories can’t act as a warning for what could happen here if we allow it.
The only winners are the executives of ride-hailing companies. Although Uber is still a private company and does not need to provide information on their executives’ salaries, Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is rumoured to have been awarded upwards of $200 million.
We could also look at the internal practices of a company like Uber, where allegations of sexual harassment of employees, as well as sexual harassment and assault committed by drivers, shows that their work culture is less than ideal. Without proper background checks and training of drivers, passengers don’t really know who their driver is. There is no vetting process. Swipe, and hope for the best, I guess.
With all of this, how can the premier and the NDP party even think about allowing ride-hailing in B.C?
The outcry from the public is understandable — we want to get from Point A to Point B, and we want it to be cheap. Ride-hailing offers that, but not without serious costs to the environment, increased wage disparities, and a decreased quality of life for the working class who choose to get behind the wheel. There are better approaches, including possible reforms to the taxi industry, making use of car-sharing programs that already have a strong presence in the city and, most certainly, with more investment in public transportation.
The Rideshare NOW BC coalition laments that Vancouver is the largest major North American city without ride-hailing. Let’s turn that statement around and use it as a selling point. Let’s show the world that we put our money where our mouth is as an environmentally conscious, progressive world city.
Michael Lee, now living in Victoria, grew up in Richmond before moving to New York to work on a masters degree in East Asian studies and journalism.