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Hi, I'm Brian Alkerton. I work at a pretty cool startup called Shopify. This site is meant to serve as a collection of my thoughts on a range of subjects: politics, movies, stand-up comedy, and anything else that catches my eye.

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Pretty Much Everything You Need To Know About Uber In Ottawa - Posted October 02, 2014

Uber is now in Ottawa... which is for the most part a good thing. There's a number of things they do way better than the current taxi system:

  • They're reviewed, and they're accountable to the outcome of those reviews. I once was ejected from a cab from having the temerity to ask my driver not to text while driving at full speed down Slater St. one evening. I was told he was disciplined, and Bylaw charged him, but he fought it in court and won since there was no conclusive evidence that he was texting while driving. Which really makes you wonder about the in-car cameras the taxi companies keep pointing to as the reason why they're better than other options.
  • You know who your driver is. I don't mean their life story, just that I get their name, picture, make of car and license plate when they confirm the pickup. I've called a cab in the past, been told to wait 15-20 minutes, then seen a vacant cab drive by 5 minutes later. Should I have flagged that one? I'd feel terrible if someone drove out of their way to get me only to have me already gone in another car. You can book a cab with an app and see it on GPS, but what if my cab sees a fare on their way to pick me up and takes them, meaning they're now going in a complete other direction? Where's the accountability to show up on time? It's too much ambiguity, and it sucks for both cabbies and passengers.
  • You can actually get a ride. Some people hate surge pricing, and I completely understand that complaint. But when it's 2:15am, -30 degrees, and every cab is full (or worse, turning down fares that aren't going far enough), I really don't mind paying a multiple if it means I get a ride ASAP. What if there's another transit strike in the middle of winter?
  • Being able to pay with a credit card without the driver giving you hell, where said payment happens securely behind the scenes without the risk of your data being stolen, and you get a receipt emailed to you... is pretty nice.

All of these are things the existing taxi companies could implement pretty easily, but they haven't. It would cost money, and without any competition since all the dispatch goes through one company, there's no alternative to lose business to, so there's really no incentive to improve. 

It doesn't hurt that Uber's significantly cheaper, too. So I'm glad to see them coming to Ottawa. But to hear some of the rhetoric about whether or not they should be operating here you'd think they were liberating Holland or... well, occupying Holland. So let's take a look at some of the complaints:

  • Safety: Uber claims their background checks are more robust than Ottawa cabs, and that their insurance coverage is significantly higher. This really needs to be verified by the city as a precondition to them operating, not least because there's more than a few examples of those background checks not actually being that thorough, and their insurance leaving drivers high and dry. However, there's no reason to believe an Uber driver is any more likely to hurt a passenger than a current Ottawa cab driver. I think it's possible to hold drivers to a higher standard than they're currently held to, and when you look at the stories about some of the horrible things drivers (both cab and Uber) have done to passengers, it's clear that we should make that a priority. But the evidence is clear that this is an issue faced both by rideshare drivers and conventional cabbies.
  • Uber will slash driver pay in a heartbeat if it means undercutting their competition. However they don't (or at least shouldn't) operate in a vacuum. If a driver can make more renting a taxi plate and charging the city-regulated fares, they should be able to do so. If other rideshare companies like Lyft or Sidecar come to Ottawa, competition for drivers would be fierce, and the likely winner would be whoever offers the best balance of caring for drivers and providing value to passengers. 
  • Uber drivers aren't licensed, so they don't have to prove they know their way around the city. GPS built into the app means they don't have to. In fact, since smartphones pull live traffic data, they can consistently dodge slowdowns better than a cab driver who doesn't have that knowledge and is just driving the most direct route.
  • Uber works great if you have a credit card and a smartphone with a data plan, but without those things in your possession, it may as well not exist. And I get it - those restrictions dramatically reduce overhead and make it easy for the business to scale. But there's significant obstacles to accessing Uber for a lot of people. They don't, for example, offer accessible cars for people with disabilities (though they've said they'd like to in the future). So when I see things in my feed like "Blueline can burn" or "I can’t wait to see Blue Line destroyed" I'm not sure if you're serious in thinking that Uber can completely replace cabs, but if that is your sincerely held belief you're a sociopath.

We've got a new service, the pluses are undeniable, the negatives are largely overstated, and yet Uber finds itself the potential target of fines, while candidates for the upcoming municipal election are being told things like "You get my vote if you let Uber stay in Ottawa, restriction free." which is frankly, kinda scary. We should require background checks for people who want to drive the public around. We should ensure that they have adequate insurance in the event that something goes wrong.

What option does the city have but to enforce the current bylaws? We have a company that was told they could operate in the city only if they met certain conditions. Those conditions tilt the playing field so far in the favour of incumbents that it's more of a playing wall, and are completely ridiculous, but rather than find a compromise, Uber's plan is to just ignore the rules. If you let that slide, you open the door to other companies ignoring regulations they don't like, including ones that are a lot more vital than our current taxi regs. I may make an incredibly good Thai Chicken, but all the customer demand in the world shouldn't exempt me from a health inspection. City council should extend a provisional license for Uber to operate while the process of reforming taxi regulations is carried out, but in the absence of that they really have no choice but to enforce the laws on the books.

The most fascinating aspect of this, at least to me, is the certainty bylaw officers have that they'll be able to successfully sting Uber drivers at any kind of scale. It's one thing to call a gypsy cab from a pay phone and bust them when they pick you up (and is bylaw even doing that? Because while it's much less in your face, it's a way bigger safety risk to the general public than Uber drivers are). To request an Uber, you're sending them information on your smartphone, your phone number, your credit card, your name/address, and probably a bunch of other data points (certainly if you sign up using Facebook). There's an easily accessible directory of everyone who works for the city online that would probably be pretty easy to cross-reference. If your hail results in a driver getting fined, everything associated with your account is getting instabanned - are they going to have the resources to generate enough new identities/accounts to make it worthwhile and still handle all the other work they have to do on a day-to-day basis?

In any case, the municipal election that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Jim Watson, and let's face it, is still going to be a cakewalk for him, just got quite a bit more interesting.

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