COLUMN: Punches are flying in Surrey over ride-hailing, but it’s an uneven match

Like other businesses that face internet-based competition, the taxi industry must adapt

With the arrival of ride-hailing in parts of B.C., the gloves are now off in Surrey.

Up to this point, Mayor Doug McCallum has essentially been shadow boxing against a much larger opponent – one that was simply awaiting permission to step into the ring.

READ MORE: VIDEO: Uber, Lyft approved for ride-hailing in Lower Mainland

That day arrived last week and now the match has begun in earnest. If this were a movie, Uber would have danced its way to the ring in a flashy silk robe, embroidered with a tiger or a stallion, while the Scorpions blared over the speakers and the crowd cheered wildly – the ones up north, who managed to get tickets, that is.

Even as Uber was getting warmed up, McCallum used the old rope-a-dope tactic, having city staff summon a car and then issue a warning to the driver and fine the company for violating rules that don’t yet exist in this particular arena.

Fighting according to league rules, at first Uber simply swatted him off. Then on Wednesday, it took its first real swing, filing for an injunction in B.C.’s Supreme Court in an attempt at a quick KO.

READ MORE: Surrey bylaw’s tactics with Uber drivers deemed ‘entrapment’ and ‘completely wrong’

READ MORE: Taxi association asks B.C. Supreme Court to stop Uber, Lyft from operating

Now that I’ve beaten that analogy to a bloody pulp, the truth is, as much as he feels justified in his actions – and he does have his supporters – McCallum is fighting an uphill battle.

He says he is protecting members of the taxi industry, who are calling for a level playing field where they are not limited in the number of licences they can hold or the area they’re permitted to serve.

That seems reasonable.

Speaking as someone whose industry has been dealt some pretty serious blows since the advent of the internet (and its attendant free online classified sites), I get that this kind of change can hurt.

Newspapers today are smaller and publish less frequently than they did 10 or 15 years ago, but our online presence has been beefed up significantly in that time, and efforts to turn it into an increasingly successful business model are ongoing.

That means many of us have had to develop new skill sets – learning to use tools that didn’t exist when I left journalism school.

Those coming into the industry today are required to know a lot more about the technical side of the job, but likely wouldn’t recognize a pica pole if it bit off a chunk of their ear.

Adapting is tough, but necessary. I don’t know what that’s going to look like for the taxi industry, but you can bet someone is out there working on it. If not, they most certainly should be.

On the rare occasion I’ve hired a taxi over the past 20 years, my ride has arrived promptly, the vehicle has been clean and the driver friendly and professional.

But I seldom find myself out late on a weekend when demand is at its peak. It’s at these times, people complain, they can wait hours for a taxi to pick them up.

Ride-hailing will fill that gap, but users are going to pay for the convenience with (sometimes severe) surge-pricing. A ride home after a New Year’s Eve party, for example, can cost many times the standard rate. While this might lead ride-hailing fans to put their money on the other guy once in a while, unless the taxi industry rethinks its business model – and quickly – it won’t be enough to keep it off the ropes for long.

Brenda Anderson is editor of the Peace Arch News.

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