Uber could be operating in Vancouver by the end of this year
After what it calls a "very long road," Uber expects its drivers to be picking up passengers in Vancouver by the end of the year, though exactly where you'll be able to hail a ride, will depend on how many drivers it's able to hire.
On Wednesday, the ride-hailing giant announced it will apply for authorization to operate in B.C., starting with a focus on the City of Vancouver and some suburbs.
"How far we can go into the suburbs will really depend on how many drivers we attract to the platform," said Michael van Hemmen, Uber's head of Western Canada.
And the biggest stumbling block to recruitment, van Hemmen said, is the province's choice to require all drivers to hold Class 4 commercial licenses.
"In smaller communities, it's much more difficult to find a critical mass of people who are willing to go through that type of process and time and cost," van Hemmen said.
Uber says it plans to apply to the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board as soon as possible, and expects the PTB will take an estimated six to eight weeks to evaluate its application.
"We see the light at the end of the tunnel," van Hemmen said, adding that he expected the first Uber X and XL rides, with premium offerings to follow later, "before the holiday season."
The current application is limited to B.C.'s Region 1, an area including Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Squamish and Lillooet, but Uber said the specific communities in which it will operate are not yet decided.
Class 4 licence "creates a barrier"
When asked if Uber might expand to places like Victoria, Kelowna, or Kamloops, the company said that could depend on whether the province accepts its proposal to allow drivers with regular Class 5 licences who have safe driving records.
"There is currently no empirical data that demonstrates any safety benefit to requiring ridesharing drivers to hold a Class 4 licence compared to a Class 5 licence with strict screening for safe driving history," the company said in a statement Wednesday.
"The unusual regulation to require a commercial licence, which only applies in two other jurisdictions in North America and requires B.C. drivers to write a test for driving a mini-bus which is not required anywhere, poses a significant barrier for drivers and will limit British Columbians' access to safer rides."
The company says it proposed a two-year study of the safety records of ride-hailing drivers and those who already hold commercial licences.
Class 4 licence holders are able to drive small buses, taxis, limos and ambulances. They must be at least 19 years old and have less than four penalty points in the last two years, and no driving-related criminal convictions in the last three.
Rules need to change: industry players
Earlier this month, both sides of the ride-hailing debate agreed on one thing: B.C.'s rules need to change.
Ride-hailing companies said they weren't happy when more details about the regulations were announced on Aug. 19, and the taxi industry also voiced concerns about the new policy.
Lyft's B.C. general manager said the company was "really going to be challenged by driver supply" as a result of the Class 4 requirement.
And the president of the B.C. Taxi Association said cab drivers took issue with larger operating zones, no caps on fleet size and cheaper insurance for ride-hailing, all of which he said would give those companies an unfair advantage.
Politicians claim 'unlevel playing field'
The NDP Government promised a level playing field when it announced ride-hailing would be permitted in B.C. several years after other Canadian provinces. But the Opposition Liberals say the Class 4 requirement is a political calculation meant to appease taxi drivers in crucial ridings.
MLA Jas Johal said the move means the 85 per cent of B.C. residents who live in suburbs or outside of Metro Van will have very little or poor service as a result.
On the municipal level, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum published an open letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan Tuesday, slamming the regulations unveiled last week as creating what he called a "distinctly unlevel playing field."
"To create a fair market environment, both ride-hailing companies and the taxi industry should be subject to the same regulations and restrictions. Anything less is unacceptable," he wrote in the letter.
He suggested restrictions on fleet size, with a view to increasing the number only if there's enough demand.
"This would result in less congestion, less impact on air quality and would allow for the taxi industry to initially retain more market share," the mayor said.
And B.C.'s public safety minister said he wasn't entirely happy with the decisions made, either.
"We would have preferred to see a reasonable cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles," Mike Farnworth said in a statement on Aug. 20.
"In the meantime, our government will be working with the Vancouver Taxi Association to respond to their concerns and to ensure the changes are rolled out in the best interests of British Columbians."
PTB chair on controversy over taxi boundaries
Catharine Read, chair of the Passenger Transportation Board, was asked about changing taxi boundaries, a major complaint from that industry and from Surrey's mayor.
Her answer was that it was not considered as part of ride-hailing regulations. Possible changes to the zones in which taxis can operate would be based on data, such as origin and destination information and wait times.
Changes could have a sweeping impact.
"Some people will win, some people will lose," Read said.
The board would also need to do extensive consultations with stakeholders, she said. However, Read added the province is collecting data from taxi companies.
"It could be a possibility in the future," she said.
Which other companies have applied?
Uber's announcement came nearly a month after another company said it would apply to the PTB.
Kater, a Vancouver-based company previously described as a hybrid between cabs and ride-hailing, said in July that it planned to expand its services. Currently, users can book a car, pay their fare and rate their driver through an app, but Kater drivers are required to hold a taxi licence and are subject to the same regulations.
It says it will continue the hybrid service, but will also offer an option similar to Uber's.
And two weeks ago, Lyft said it hopes to have drivers on the road by the end of the year.
In a statement at the time, the company said it hopes to expand throughout the province over time, especially to areas where additional transportation options are most needed.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Bhinder Sajan