Uber no fit for Kitimat says local taxi operators

The province sees a future for Uber-like car services but Kitimat taxi companies don't see a future for it in Kitimat.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone now says the entry of ride-hailing services like Uber into B.C. is inevitable, but the province aims to preserve a significant role for the existing taxi industry.

While Stone still maintains Uber would have to get approval from the province’s Passenger Transportation Branch and meet various insurance and safety requirements, he acknowledged strong public demand for the service, which connects paying passengers with drivers via a smartphone app.

“It’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if,'” Stone told reporters Wednesday.  “That industry and its introduction into British Columbia is going to happen at some point.”

He said he wants to ensure any formal entry of ride sharing is “done in a very responsible fashion that also balances the interests and respects the jobs and the investments of the taxi industry.”

It’s a significant shift in tone from stern warnings from Stone in 2014 vowing to send undercover officers to bust Uber drivers if the service launched without approval.

Speculation that change is in the air has grown since the BC Liberal party bought online ads asking if it’s time to “welcome the sharing economy.”

Stone said he and his staff are meeting with both Uber and the taxi industry.

He cited the convenience, choice and competition a service like Uber would bring to what has been a taxi industry monopoly, adding it could be “very complementary” and not necessarily detrimental to cab firms.

“British Columbians are expecting at some point sooner rather than later they’re going to have those additional choices.”

Stone said the taxi industry wants and deserves a “level playing field” and he credited its work to serve disabled passengers with accessible taxis and specialized driver training.

Disability Alliance B.C. executive director Jane Dyson said the safety and comfort of people with disabilities and frail seniors is paramount.

“There have been some concerns that the introduction of Uber may weaken the availability of trained taxi drivers working within the taxi industry,” Dyson said.

In Kitimat there are 4,700 HandyDART trips made per year.

“We know that HandyDart rides are increasingly being buttressed by taxi trips and with the aging of the population that is likely to continue. If Uber came into the market we would want to see it strictly regulated, as the taxi industry is.”

Kitimat taxi operator Kevin Barry said he wouldn’t do an interviewed on this subject but just offered a quick remark that  he doesn’t believe there is room in the local market for an Uber-like service. He said as the legitimate businesses with the licenses they deserve to hold on to the business.

Kitimat’s Valley Taxi operator Chris Knight also doesn’t see a future for Uber, at least not in towns like Kitimat.

“In Kitimat, well there are times you can’t get a cab, this is true. But for them to run in legally they’d have to go through the [Public Transportation Branch] and I can’t see it.”

He said if too many people start offering Uber rides in a town like Kitimat nobody will be able to make a living.

Operating a taxi is also no cheap venture and it costs him thousands of dollars a year just to be able to operate.

“Whatever happens with Uber…it probably won’t take hold here. Could be a short term fix if we get the LNG in, but in long term I can’t see it.”

Uber and taxi industry reps have been going from city to city in Metro Vancouver seeking support from local politicians.

It’s also become an issue in the Coquitlam by-election, where the Liberal candidate has promised to champion sharing services like Uber and Airbnb.

NDP leader John Horgan questioned why Stone has performed a “complete 180” from his earlier anti-Uber rhetoric.

He suggested the Liberals are either in secret talks to cut a deal with Uber or are merely trying to “curry favour” in the by-election.

Horgan called on the government to put ride sharing and similar issues to open debate in the legislature through a non-partisan committee.

“If we’re going to throw out what has been a many decades long system that has protected the taxi industry, certainly, and also protected customers, let’s have a discussion about that,” Horgan said.

“Let’s do it in a way that’s not just more backroom deals by Liberals.”

He said more answers are needed about the “consequences to family businesses” as well as the degree to which San Jose-based Uber would effectively be taking revenue out of B.C. and only returning some of it to its drivers here.

– Cameron Orr and Jeff Nagel