Uber is great for consumers—and immigrants

Mark Milke, Orca, August 9, 2019

The problem with taxi monopolies in British Columbia or anywhere else can best be illustrated by a short trip I took to Regina three years ago. After flying into the city for weekend meetings, I was forced to wait for a taxi at the airport. Nothing unusual about that; taxicab companies are routinely given a monopoly on service at airports even vis-à-vis other cab companies.

In addition to molasses-like movement to approving ride-sharing services by government, preferential treatment for cab companies at the airport is also why potential passengers must literally cool their heels, be it in Regina, or still, in Vancouver.  

But I digress: As I exited from the Regina airport terminal and waited, the outdoor temperature was about five degrees. It was not cold enough to be dangerous—it can get to minus 30 on the Prairies when Victorians and Vancouverites spot early blossoms—but cold enough to be annoyingly chilly if forced to wait for long. 

After 10 minutes, I noticed a cab finally pull up to the stand but only to drop a passenger off; he was not allowed to pick anyone up. That was a city-sanctioned privilege reserved for other taxis. (Think about that for a minute: city hall requires a cab to leave the airport empty.)

But given there were no other cabs in the vicinity, the driver, with eyes darting around, then half-enthusiastically/half-reluctantly agreed to ferry me to my downtown Regina hotel. But just as I was getting into his cab, another taxi finally arrived. That second cab driver started to yell at the first driver, objecting to his “unauthorized” pick-up.

Given that I dislike government-sanctioned privilege, I recall telling driver number two off. It was some version of “get stuffed;” after all, I’d waited for ten minutes in single digit temperatures. I then hopped in the first taxi. We sped off, almost like some Bonnie and Clyde escape from the other angry cab driver. 

This angry altercation between two drivers was entirely the fault of politicians. It was a great example of why they should stay away from picking favourites among companies in any sector: a government awarded a privilege to one company, to some drivers over others. It led to disharmony.

Politicians through their favouritism — Cab number two can make money but cab number one cannot — helped start a yelling match at the Regina airport on a wintry March day. 

The politicians somewhere just didn’t get it. There are useful matters to which governments should attend: contracting out to pick up garbage; ensuring enough prosecutors are hired to go after possible criminals; spend money on parks and not sports teams (Calgary reference for those who missed the recent taxpayer-financed gift to the Calgary Flames owners). But interfering between two consenting cab drivers for my potential business is not one of those core responsibilities of government.

Back to Uber and also Lyft. Both are cautious about entering the broader British Columbia market any time soon, even as the provincial government offers up a weak attempt to allow ride sharing as of September. That’s because of onerous rules and regulations designed to still protect cab companies and government-favoured ride-sharing services.

There is great irony in a province where dope has long been available on multiple street corners and long before cannabis became legal, but where if you would like to get home in a hurry, or are a tourist wanting to get from YVR to somewhere in greater Vancouver, you have to wait, and wait, and wait. It’s as if you were a foreigner fleeing Casablanca in the movie Casablanca waiting for an exit visa at Rick’s Café.

The reason why British Columbians have had to wait so long for ride sharing and will now be delivered only a sub-par. bureaucratically-designed, uncompetitive version of it, has everything to do with votes: some politicians are after those in Surrey and elsewhere, where newer Canadians or even long-established ones have some political clout on this issue.

Part of the hesitancy thus far has, perhaps, also has been due to the understandable sympathy for newer immigrants: How will Uber impact their livelihood? Keith Baldrey tweeted about this last year. But Baldrey was wrong then (and Keith, you’re still wrong now if you still hold that view). And here’s why.

I’ve taken Uber in Calgary, Ottawa, and Dallas among other cities and here’s who I’ve met as drivers: a young South Korean who moved to Calgary ten years ago and lost his energy patch engineering job five years ago. He’s driven Uber full-time ever since. It’s the only job he could find to help pay the mortgage and put food on the table for his two kids and wife, though she also works, part-time.

Last year, I met a fellow who emigrated from Afghanistan in the early 2000s. He was grateful to earn a living with Uber because getting a job with a local taxi monopoly would have been impossible. Back in April, after leaving Uber-less Vancouver for Calgary, the Uber driver who picked me up was originally from Nigeria. Driving for Uber won’t make him rich. But it will pay a few bills and the barriers to drive with Uber were low and reasonable.  

In Dallas, in October 2017, the fellow who Uber-ed me from the hotel to my flight, actually worked at Greyhound full-time. African-American, he drove for Uber to help pay the mortgage for the five-bedroom home he and his wife bought for the family two years previous. (He needed a house that large; he had five kids. He also told me he paid $187,000 for it in 2015 it since appreciated to the astronomical price of $212,000. But housing supply and moderating home prices is another column; I again digress.)       

On principle, I’ve never liked taxicab companies. Before Uber, they were licences to print money and much of the excessive cab fare went to owners and not drivers, the exception being drivers who held licences. Uber has actually allowed drivers to make more than they often would with cab companies. At the very least, Uber’s presence in most North American cities broke the taxicab monopoly, increased demand for what is, in essence, public rides, employed new Canadians, and spread the wealth around. (You’d think an NDP government would like that latter point—wealth redistribution.)

Regardless, while British Columbians wait for a government-designed “ride-sharing” service, know that Uber and Lyft long ago perfected the model: it benefits consumers and drivers alike. The other benefit is that governments no longer unintentionally start fights between taxi drivers.

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Mark Milke is an independent policy analyst, keynote speaker and author. His newest book, The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations, will be released in October. His website is www.markmilke.com. Image credit: Pixabay.

 

Mark Milke