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Opinion: It’s time to fix our broken taxi system

Have you ever waited too long for a taxi, or not got one at all? Last week, SFU’s noon-time discussion series “City Conversation” examined Vancouver’s taxi industry and emerging technology-based alternatives such as Uber.

Have you ever waited too long for a taxi, or not got one at all?

Last week, SFU’s noon-time discussion series “City Conversation” examined Vancouver’s taxi industry and emerging technology-based alternatives such as Uber.

Participants included Mohan Singh, president of the B.C. Taxi Association (BCTA), which represents most taxi companies in the province, and former

Vancouver city councillor and writer Peter Ladner.

While Uber and its aggressive tactics have attracted media headlines, there are other ride-share providers wanting to serve us. This could have significant ramifications for taxi passengers, drivers and the industry as a whole.

I attended this discussion since for many years I have believed Metro Vancouver’s taxi system is broken, especially when compared with other cities where I have lived and travelled.

The fact that the BCTA represents all 140 taxi companies in B.C. except for the four companies operating in Vancouver is, to my mind, evidence that something is amiss.

While the BCTA is proud of its lobbying efforts to keep the B.C. taxi industry regulated, many provincial regulations are outdated, short-sighted and neither sustainable nor in the best interests of passengers.

For example, except during weekend evenings, North Shore, Surrey or Richmond taxis bringing fares into Vancouver are not allowed to take fares back to their home municipalities. They must return empty. This is a sustainable transportation system? At the same time, Vancouver taxis are often reluctant to take fares to distant parts of Metro Vancouver since they too are restricted from bringing fares back to the city.

If you have ever waited a long time for a taxi or not found one at all, it may be because Vancouver has the lowest ratio of taxis per capita of any major Canadian city.

It is significant that not one new taxi company has been allowed to enter the Vancouver market in 25 years. Compare this with any other retail or service industry.

If you thought fares seemed expensive, Vancouver rates are approximately 15 per cent higher than the average in major Canadian cities.

SFU graduate student Benn Proctor has written an excellent master’s thesis on the taxi industry. He concluded that the primary beneficiaries of current regulations are the taxi company shareholders who can charge $800,000 for a single taxi cab license.

Meanwhile, taxi drivers who work half their shift just to pay overhead and operating expenses and taxi passengers are the losers; especially those of us trying to get a cab during peak times or around 4 p.m. when the customary 12-hour shifts start and end.

While deregulating the taxi industry might seem like a possible solution, it has been tried in many places around the world with limited success. Regulatory reform would seem to be a better approach.

However, without public outcry, significant regulatory reform is not likely to happen since, as I learned when I ran for city council, taxi cab owners are very influential and highly visible at election time.

For these reasons, I and many others would like to see Uber or similar companies operating in Vancouver.

Uber’s stated mission is “to improve city life by connecting people with safe, reliable, hassle-free rides through the use of technology.” Passengers use a smartphone app to connect with private drivers.

Uber currently operates in 253 cities in 53 countries worldwide. While it has generated concerns, as noted during the SFU discussion, including highly publicized reports of drivers raping passengers, everyone with whom I have spoken who has used Uber is full of praise.

Fares are generally lower, cars come quickly and the smartphone application provides details on vehicle identification and arrival. Furthermore, no cash changes hands.

Today New York City has 14,000 cabs for 8.5 million people. Mexico City has 100,000 cabs for 9 million people. Metro Vancouver has 1,500 cabs serving a population of nearly 2.5 million.

As more Vancouver residents choose not to own a car, and tougher drinking and driving laws are introduced, the need for more taxis and taxi alternatives will increase. Vancouver needs to develop a “taxi culture” like other major world cities. More cabs and alternative transportation choices like Uber will help make this happen.

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