Cab-hiring app Uber has countered a pre-emptive lawsuit against it by taxi companies with a petition urging the province and City of Vancouver to welcome its service.
Launched last Thursday, the petition had more than 14,000 names by Monday and follows a vow from Transportation Minister Todd Stone to use undercover agents to fine Uber drivers if they begin operating in contravention of B.C. law.
In the petition preamble, Uber calls the taxi industry in Metro Vancouver a cartel of “a few rich taxi owners” out to preserve their business instead of serving passengers well.
“While consumers are left stranded, the government continues to protect taxi interests under the guise of maintaining ‘industry health,'” it says. “With the lowest number of taxis per capita in North America, Vancouver residents and visitors are woefully underserved when it comes to transportation options.”
Critics from the taxi industry warn Uber would bring unreliable, potentially substandard service using questionable drivers and cars.
Uber argues it’s a technology, not a conventional taxi service, and should not be subject to the same rules.
The U.S. firm invites private vehicle owners to sign up and takes a 20 per cent cut of fares. Customers use a smartphone app to book rides and pay fares without cash changing hands.
SFU City Program director Gordon Price said the taxi industry’s alarm is understandable – taxi licences worth nearly $1 million in the Vancouver area would become nearly worthless if a flood of Uber drivers take over the market.
But he said passengers would enjoy cheaper fares and a service that’s “much better” because of the convenience of the app.
Passengers need not know where they are to book a ride with Uber, which finds their location via GPS and matches them with available drivers.
The taxi industry is meanwhile aiming to launch its own app as early as February to provide similar features on behalf of all companies in the Lower Mainland, B.C. Taxi Association spokesman Mohan Kang said.
Municipalities are so far siding with taxi firms against Uber in part because of the money they collect from cab licence fees, SFU marketing professor Lindsay Meredith said.
But he said the issue boils down to protection of a long-running monopoly and predicts Uber would not have found such fertile ground here had taxis not been notorious for long waits and reluctance to make some trips.
“Try to catch a cab at 2 a.m. to get back to Surrey,” Meredith said. “Most of the cabs don’t want to do that because of the empty backhaul.”
He noted one facet of Uber’s model is variable pricing, which can mean very high “surge” rates at peak demand times and lower fares at other times.
That aims to attract more drivers when they’re needed and match supply to demand.
“Uber’s pricing system is much closer to a free market pricing structure,” Meredith said. “If they’re able to elbow their way in here they will start driving down the prices and that strikes fear into the hearts of taxi companies.”
Uber operates in more than 220 cities and has been advertising on Facebook for drivers in B.C.