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B.C. government will usher Uber onto taxi turf by December

Uber is a popular method to hail rides in other North American cities. - Black Press file photo
Uber is a popular method to hail rides in other North American cities.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

The B.C. government will break the taxi industry monopoly with new rules it says will allow ride-matching juggernaut Uber to fairly compete.

But at the same time it’s promising taxi firms significant reforms and financial support to make the transition.

That includes $1 million in support to finance their move toward a consistent ride-hailing app for shared dispatch of taxis across B.C., allowing riders to hail and pay via smartphone.

The province has been evaluating policy options to satisfy demand from the public to use Uber and other ride-matching services, but without triggering catastrophic damage to the incumbent taxi companies and families who depend on taxi jobs.

While the disruptive technology is praised by fans who say it is often more reliable than conventional cabs, it also has detractors who argue it is under-regulated and would suck away profits to the U.S.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone promised a “very thoughtful, very deliberate approach” over the next nine months, but said B.C. will welcome ride-sharing services like Uber by December.

“We want to make sure we get the work right,” Stone said. “We want to respect the jobs that are represented in the taxi industry.”

He said it’s clear the public wants not just more choice, but also convenience, accessibility and competition, without risk to passenger safety.

Taxis will get preferential treatment in certain areas.

Communities Minister Peter Fassbender said taxis will have exclusive right to street hailing and pickups from cab stands – Uber cars couldn’t simply be flagged down without using the app.

He said ICBC will also pay up to $3.5 million to install new crash avoidance technology in taxis as a means of helping taxi firms reduce their down time and resulting costs. Taxis that already installed the equipment in a pilot project will have their costs reimbursed.

Also promised is faster claim-handling for taxis.

“A taxi off the road is lost revenue for that company and for the drivers that use the vehicle.”

Fassbender estimated the new taxi-hailing app that’s to be developed could save the existing industry up to 25 per cent.

He also indicated that pending legislation will eliminate many of the existing rules that have constrained taxi companies for years.

Taxis will be allowed to pick up customers and drop them off anywhere – suburban cabs would no longer be barred from picking up fares in Vancouver or vice-versa.

Taxi companies also would no longer be under a licence cap – Fassbender said they could add more vehicles “if that is the business decision they want to make.”

Both taxi and ride-share drivers will have to be 19 years old, pass criminal record checks, pass a driver safety record check and vehicles will have to pass regular inspections.

Uber or other ride sharing drivers will have to have the same level of insurance, and taxi drivers will no longer need a Class 4 driver’s licence, but the same Class 5 licence as ride-share drivers.

“The new process that will be put in place will ensure as level a playing field as possible between ride-sharing companies and the taxi industry in the insurance that they will require to assure consumers that they are covered,” Fassbender said.

He also hinted that there may be ways to enable TransLink’s Compass card as a payment mechanism for taxis and ride-sharing.

The province is also promising to reform what it says is inconsistent municipal regulation of taxi companies to ensure a level playing field.

Uber uses surge pricing at high-demand times to attract additional drivers, so while passengers might not face as long a wait for a cab on New Year’s Eve they could expect to pay much more.

NDP MLA Harry Bains said he’s skeptical that the province’s direction will safeguard the taxi industry.

“It has all the elements to accommodate Uber,” Bains said. “I’m concerned that the way they’re approaching this it could destroy our hard-working small business taxi owners in the Lower Mainland.”

The NDP has not yet spelled out its future policy on ride-sharing and taxis.

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