City Committee Weaves Through Road Obstacles to Overturn Taxi Monopoly

The deed is done.  The City hired a consultant to find a way through the mess that Uber created when it brought its travelling road show to the city just over a year ago, and the solution it proposed pretty much provided the road map the City was looking for.  A few amendments from members of the Community & Protective Services Committee gave it a bit of polish.

I waded in by making a 5-minute presentation at the hearing, and by meeting beforehand with the chair of the committee and the policy guy for Uber Canada, Chris Schaefer, both meetings being the result of an email in which I offered, as a retired carsharing company owner in Ottawa, to help.  I probably played a small role.

What I wanted to point out was that the City and cab company regime that limited the number of plates and set the fares that could be charged at all time, was finally exposed to be the dinosaur it really is, primarily because it cannot provide for peak demand at certain times of the day or for special events.  There was simply no way to get additional taxis on the road to accommodate this demand.

The other problems arose from that monopoly:
1) drivers were mainly new immigrants who were much more willing than native drivers to work long shifts, 2) the drivers had an air of entitlement that interfered with good customer service (not helped by clunking dispatcher services/apps, and 3) the industry was slow – and highly resistant – to adopting measures that would make their service better, especially to give customers a better idea when the cab would arrive, and a way to make comments short of a formal complaint.

I commented on my experience starting Vrtucar, and how City staff were hard to convince how different carsharing was from car-rental when it came to both zoning (we had no need to park our cars at our office) and parking permits (we did not qualify as a resident, but 90% of uses were by nearby residents.  I also made the point that the City did not try to protect the car-rental industry from our “disruptive” challenge.  But I made the point that we avoided the insurance issue because we did not provide a driver, just as ridesharing also did not.  I then pointed out that Uber is using “ridesharing” erroneously, because they provide both car and driver, and their rates reflect their need to recover both costs, whereas a rideshare arrangement recovers only car costs, fixed and variable, as a rate no higher than what an employee charges an employer for driving for “business.”

Although I didn’t mention other terminology matters in my formal comments, I did in talking to others:

1) the use of “private transportation company” for the new category is confusing, since the providers of the taxi service are also private companies; the KPMG term, “transportation network company,” the one used in other cities that have come up with virtually the same solution, is far better.  “Livery,” the term used in New York City (referring to today’s horse-drawn predecessors), is a better term.

2) “Safety” was again and again the word used to justify the taxi drivers’ demand that the Uber cars have cameras recording the participants inside the car; the word that should have been used is “security.”  (Safety refers to accidents; security to intentional acts, such as assault and robbery).

3) Another term used for both categories is “vehicle-hire.”  Sorry, but that misses the driver’s role, and inadvertently includes carsharing and car-rental.

4) “Surge pricing,” another term used by Uber to describe how its rates change with demand, should instead adopt the term used for variable parking rates by cities, including Ottawa, “dynamic pricing”, which better reflects that rates will not only rise when demand is high, but also decline when demand is low (or supply high). [See Donald Shoup, 2005, The High Cost of Free Parking]

My most unique message was probably my comments about how much more transportation will be “networked” in the future, and how change will continue to be demanded by the public offered evolving new products:

1) I am working on a “hybrid” of (true) ridesharing and carsharing that will bring both services to the suburbs via two-station cars that will need to be moved between suburban residential areas (evenings and weekends) and suburban employment centres (weekdays) by regular rideshare routes.  It will give residents part-time car-ownership to replace a second car, and the same to employees who have arrived at work by means other than a personal car (ending their car-free status during work hours).

2) A new app for car-owners to allow them to pick up others going their way to personal and business destinations, a kind of high tech “hitchhiking” which is also true ridesharing.   Uber should be looking over its should for this one.

3) The new autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars) that will arrive in about 5-10 years.  They will make “passengerhood” popular again, especially in the age of “connected” technologies that work against driving (especially “distracted” driving).  It should also be a godsend to older drivers needing to find an alternative to driving but without any loss of independence.  Ditto for the disabled.

I also pointed out that transportation is a system, and must be integrated.  However, the City separates it into several “silos.”  The day before, I appeared to present to Transportation Committee about “congestion pricing” for all private vehicles.  The previous week, the IT (Information Technology Subcommittee) was receiving a staff report on the “Smart City” which encompasses all use of technology to support “smart” transportation as well; FEDCO is responsible for parking revenue operations; Planning Committee is responsible for parking requirements; and Environment Committee would get involved in a project that I am working with Ecology Ottawa on: storm-water fees for paved areas on each taxpayer’s property, as well as the roofed area that is not captured by eaves troughs and rain barrels.  (For property owners no longer needing any off-street parking, the City should compensate them for freeing up car-parking spots.)  And along with this will come a need for lots of citizen participation; however, most citizen advisory committees have been abolished.  (But the City never figured out how to relate to them, anyway).

This fractured policy field works against the City being able to give these clear messages to citizens: 1) “The city will no longer consider access to its streets or car-drivers to be free.”  2) “Take less space or be ready to pay.”  3) “It would be good to plan ahead by arranging your work and live locations so that your daily commute is far shorter,” hopefully short enough to not even need to use transit so much, because we are going to change that too, pretty soon, to recognize true “private transportation companies” who will provide jitney-type services on low-volume streets and will be expected to charge by distance and time-of-day, removing the monthly pass honoured on every vehicle for good.  (UberHop, one such service, has already started in Toronto).

Overall, I think the committee and its chair are to be thanks and admired for a good job done under very challenging circumstances.  They stood up to unavoidable disappointment by the drivers, but realized that the game – its control of the service – was over; there was no reason to prolong it.  Uber, despite being a shameless opportunist who depends on part-timers with cars, has done everyone a favour.  It would be nice, though, to give the participants more than a week to digest the many relevant documents.

Yes, just as I jumped into this fray on this issue close to my heart, I am willing to do the same in the future.

[The author is former owner of Vrtucar, current member and co-founder of the Older Drivers Committee at the Council on Aging of Ottawa, and members of Walk Ottawa and Citizens for Safe Cycling.  He wrote “The Walk-and-Roll City: A Vision for the City without Cars, Trucks, or Buses” in 1992, available on this site, as is the “hybrid” paper mentioned above.]

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