B.C. will allow ride hailing, but with many rules and not until fall 2019

Ride hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft will be allowed in British Columbia by the fall of 2019, but they will be operating in a market so tightly controlled, critics question whether they’ll be able to thrive.

The provincial government introduced legislation to modernize B.C.’s taxi industry on Monday, but it remains unclear when the first ride-hailing vehicles will hit the road.

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“Today’s legislation opens the door for ride-hailing companies to enter the market and offer new services to people,” said Transportation Minister Claire Trevena.

Ride-hailing companies will be able to submit applications to the Passenger Transportation Board in September 2019. It’s unclear how long it will take to process those applications.

“We’re very hopeful that the [Passenger Transportation Board] will be approving them very quickly once applications get in,” Trevena told reporters. No ride-hailing vehicles will be on the road until they’re covered by insurance, Trevena said, and the Insurance Corporation of B.C. has set a date for fall of 2019 for its ride-hailing insurance product.

“Safety is my number one concern as minister, so we need to make sure the insurance is in place,” she said. “We’re working as quickly as we can.”

Trevena did not set a deadline for when she’d like to see ride-hailing cars on the road, other than “as soon as possible.”

If passed, the Passenger Transportation Amendment Act will give more power to the Passenger Transportation Board to set fares, make decisions on the number of licences and the boundaries in which taxis and ride-hailing vehicles operate, taking some of that power away from municipal governments.

Municipal governments will still have a say on the type of vehicles, taxi stand locations and local business-licence requirements.

Michael van Hemmen, who heads Uber’s Western Canadian operations, worried that caps on numbers of vehicles and controls on pricing could present a major roadblock to the company’s expansion into B.C. He said no other jurisdiction in Canada sets controls on pricing or vehicle supply. “Today raises a lot of questions about the future of ride sharing in B.C.”

Pascal Ryffel, spokesperson for TappCar, a ride-hailing company in Alberta and Manitoba, welcomed the careful approach taken by the B.C. government. In unregulated markets, it’s always tough to compete against the bigger players because they will just flood the market and drive up competition, he said. TappCar, Ryffel said, prefers a more regulated system and that translates into better safety standards for customers.

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said the NDP government has bogged down ride-hailing with so many regulations that the whole process has been set up to fail. “The customer has no influence on price and supply, it’s all going to be set up by an NDP-managed process that will be slow and inefficient,” Wilkinson said. “What they set up is a cumbersome, government-run bureaucracy for something that should be determined by market demand.”

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, who has introduced legislation to enable ride hailing three times, said he’s happy to finally see legislation, but British Columbians are still left wondering when they’ll see Uber and Lyft vehicles on the road.

“What British Columbians really want to know is when they will be able to access their services,” he said. “The fact that an issue with such high levels of public demand has taken so long to see progress is a failure of our political system. It’s obvious that neither of the other parties has been able to find the political will to act on this issue in a timely manner.”

The NDP government has faced criticism for being slow to open the door to ride hailing, which is well-established in other parts of the country. Premier John Horgan promised before the May 2017 election that services such as Uber and Lyft would be operating by the end of that year.

Weaver criticized the requirement for ride-hailing drivers to maintain class 4 passenger licences, which is the same class of licence that applies to people who drive buses and minivans. Weaver believes a class 5 licence, issued to most motorists, would be enough to allow drivers to safely operate, which is in line with the recommendations in a report released this summer by industry expert Dan Hara.

The all-party committee that will advise on regulations is a promising development, Weaver said, as it requires parties to collaborate to make ride hailing a reality.

The regulations also give taxi companies more flexibility to pick up and drop off passengers in different municipalities, an ongoing frustration that leaves many people stranded.

Drivers will face mandatory criminal record checks and have to pay a per-trip fee to fund more accessibility options for people with disabilities. The fee has not been set.

Taxi and ride-hailing drivers that break the rules will face steeper fines, of up to $50,000, and companies that operate without a licence could face a maximum fine of $100,000.

The B.C. Federation of Labour expressed disappointment that ride-hailing legislation fails to promote good-paying and stable jobs and protections for workers. The federation criticized the labour relations practices of large multi-national companies such as Uber. “We appreciate the goal of the bill is to expand transportation options and focus on passenger safety,” federation president Irene Lanzinger said in a statement. “But the proposed legislation should have included measures to modernize outdated employment laws that give employers too much power and employees too few rights. The needs of workers have been left completely out of the equation.”

Lanzinger said ride-hailing enterprises such as Uber helped invent “the gig economy” in which jobs are precarious, unstable and low-paying. “Workers need a level playing field and more clout to deal with rich and powerful companies,” she said.

The federation is calling for changes that ensure ride-hailing companies can’t classify their employees as independent contractors.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps commended the province for moving forward. “The legislation aligns with city council’s priorities and will result in more transportation options that are safe, flexible and convenient for people,” Helps said.

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