Is it time for Uber?

It was a cold and miserable night when Emily Dexter found herself in a situation a lot of Haligonians have experienced: she couldn’t get a cab. Dexter and some friends were at the Marquee Ballroom on Gottingen Street and tried to leave at around 2 a.m. on a Sunday. 

“The weather was awful,” she recalls. “It was raining. You’re standing outside. There’s nowhere to go and you couldn’t get a cab and the buses weren’t running at this time of night, so it was really super frustrating.” Dexter’s phone log revealed 32 calls to Casino Taxi, none of which got through. Frustrated at her inability to get a cab, she and her friends headed in opposite directions and walked. It took Dexter about 25 minutes to get home.

Dexter’s cab woes actually began earlier in the evening when she and her friends tried to get to the Marquee. She says calls to Casino Taxi and Yellow Cab also went unanswered. Even attempts to use taxi companies’ apps proved fruitless.

Later that day, Dexter posted an image of the call log to Twitter and explained her situation. She says this wasn’t the first time she’s had a hard time getting a cab in the city. “They just aren’t available when you need them,” she says. “They don’t prepare themselves for the busy nights. They know it’s going to be a busy night and they don’t have extra cabs out on the street.”

It’s experiences like this that has Dexter clamouring to have Uber in the city. The web-based ride-hailing service allows people to book rides using an app. Before selecting a driver, users can see how they’ve been rated by other riders. As well, because the user fills in where they’re headed, the fare is calculated and the rider knows how much they’ll be paying. No cash changes hands; payment is via credit /debit card through the app.

A survey released in August 2018 by Corporate Research Associates suggests many Haligonians feel like Dexter does. The survey suggests 67 per cent of Halifax residents support having ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. The telephone survey included 400 residents and is considered accurate to plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, 95 out of 100 times.

At present, Uber isn’t outlawed, but licensing and regulation requirements prevent it from getting a foothold. Cabbies need two things to be in business: a taxi driver licence (the number of which isn’t limited by the city) and a taxi owner licence (which is capped at 1,000 and all are in use). “This licence is what permits a vehicle to have a roof light,” writes city spokesperson Erin DiCarlo in an email.

There’s a waitlist of 800 people waiting to get a taxi owner licence, and the expected wait time is at least 10 years, says DiCarlo. Taxi drivers who have both licences could operate as Uber drivers if Uber was to operate as a dispatch service, similar to companies such as Yellow Cab and Casino Taxi.

The current licence cap in Halifax helps inflate demand for taxi drivers. In other markets, Uber largely operates without there being limits to the number of Uber drivers, which reduces demand for existing taxi drivers.

The groundwork for allowing ride-hailing services like Uber appears to be in the works. Last spring, HRM Council asked staff to review the taxi and limousine industry. In September, the city launched a survey to get people’s thoughts, which included the question, “Would you use an Uber or Lyft app?” The city received over 13,400 responses, which DiCarlo says is a “high” level of engagement compared to most surveys the city puts out. She says the survey results and a staff report are expected in 2019. Uber shared the survey link with Haligonians who have Uber accounts from using it in other cities.

Matt Whitman, the councillor for District 13, Hammonds Plains–St. Margarets, says it’s “unavoidable” that Uber will begin operating in the city. “We’re becoming a big city and we need big-city technology to keep us competitive,” he says. Whitman was in Toronto in October on a four-day trip and says he took about 15 Uber rides. He quizzed the drivers about the Uber life and walked away impressed. “It’s pretty cool that you know what you get from an Uber driver before you get in the car,” he says.

Arguably one of the biggest reasons why people want Uber in Halifax is because it would make it easier to get a ride. Dave Buffett is the president of the Halifax Regional Municipality Taxi Association. “You cannot retool an industry because six or eight hours a week, there’s an unusually high demand … you have to gear it around what’s acceptable,” he says. Outside of inclement weather and a few hours on Friday and Saturday nights, he says it’s not hard getting a taxi.

Buffett says the biggest challenge facing the local taxi industry is the struggle to serve people with disabilities. Besides a shortage of vehicles equipped for the job (there are only 18 accessible taxis in HRM) he says the calls aren’t profitable. “It takes longer to pick up and drop off a person with a disability,” says Buffett. “You can easily add 15 minutes to the trip, conservatively.” 

Buffett says that on top of the fares collected by taxi drivers on these calls, Halifax Transit should also pay the drivers for taking the call as the taxis are doing some of the work provided by the Access-a-Bus service.

He says the taxi industry has done a good job of adopting modern technology, such as apps that allow you to book cabs. He notes the major local players (Casino Taxi, Yellow Cab, Bob’s Taxi, and Satellite Taxi) all offer apps. Vehicles are equipped with GPS, which allows app users to know where the vehicles are coming from. “I think the industry works pretty well for the most part,” says Buffett. “It’s always a crisis if someone can’t get a cab five minutes after they called one. If I want furnace oil, I call my oil provider and they say, ‘Look, we’ll be in your neighbourhood Tuesday or Thursday or Monday,’ it’s not right away.”

Dexter isn’t impressed with that line of thought. “Well, that’s kind of ridiculous. I understand there are delays,” she says, noting the delays many people experience are lengthy and not just five minutes. Besides having more cabs on the roads late at night on weekends, she thinks Halifax Transit should have a late-night bus route running between the south and north ends of the city that would at least help get people closer to their destination.

As for Uber, Buffett sees it as inevitable, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He has concerns about the background checks they do on drivers and thinks Uber drivers don’t have much incentive to provide good service because he believes it’s not their main job. “Uber will tell you tell it’s something to do, you know, on your way to work … after work, if you want to pick up some money for Christmas, drive for Uber.” According to Uber’s website, more than half of drivers work between one and 15 hours each week; 80 per cent drive for fewer than 35 hours per week.

There’s no doubt if Uber comes to Halifax, getting from A to B will become much easier. “They’ve been a quick fix to long-standing problems for taxi service,” says Bruce Schaller, a New York-based consultant who formerly worked for the city’s transportation department and the city’s taxi and limousine commission. Last summer, Schaller released a report titled The New Automobility: Lyft, Uber and the Future of American Cities, which looked at the impact ride-hailing companies are having on cities.

Two of the impacts are reduced public transit use and increased traffic. According to researchers at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, ride-hailing has resulted in a six per cent decrease in public transit use in major American cities. The most common reason cited among survey respondents for why they were ditching transit for ride-hailing was because transit “services are too slow.”

Schaller says this puts cities and individuals in a somewhat conflicted position .“The tension here is the city needs to bolster its public transportation system to absorb the growth [in traffic] … but what people individually find beneficial is to use their phone and get an Uber or Lyft,” he tells Halifax Magazine. “It works for the individual, but it doesn’t work at scale for the city.”

Uber did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

While researchers are getting a better grasp on the impact of ride-hailing services, it will take time to fully understand what they are, much like it has with other technological innovations. “Airbnb’s goal was to help apartment dwellers make some money renting out a spare bedroom but was eventually perceived to fuel higher rents and gentrification,” says Schaller’s report. “Similarly, Facebook’s goal of connecting people around the globe eventually led to its use by a foreign government seeking to interfere with an American presidential election.”

Halifax’s current taxi system needs change. Besides the difficulty in sometimes getting a ride, the industry’s reputation has been battered by negative press from sexual assaults committed against female passengers by drivers, both proven and alleged. 

In one case, former taxi driver Saher Hamdan was found guilty after he tried to kiss a woman and touched her without her consent in July 2016. In a much-publicized case, cabbie Bassam Al-Rawi was found not guilty of an alleged March 2015 sexual assault in which police found a 26-year-old woman in the back of his car who was unconscious, intoxicated, and partially naked, while Al-Rawi’s pants were halfway down. 

Of the 1,463 taxi driver licences in the city, 97.2 per cent belong
to men.

Schaller says ride-hailing companies largely entered Canadian markets after the American ones, which means Halifax has a better shot at developing an approach that could mitigate some of the negative impacts if ride-hailing is permitted here. “The Canadian cities have benefitted by having the U.S. go first and seeing what happens in both the short term and the longer term,” he says.  

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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