As ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft get closer to hitting the road in Atlantic Canada, a Winnipeg-based researcher warns they come with a heavy toll.
City councils in Halifax and Fredericton have asked staff to draft bylaws that would allow Uber and Lyft to operate on their streets.
Councillors behind the move often cite overwhelming public demand for the services, saying they are the future of urban transportation.
“We don’t want to be trying to protect a horse-and-buggy industry in the face of the arrival of the automobile,” says Halifax councillor Sam Austin. “The technology moves on and we have to adapt with it.”
But James Wilt says that’s exactly what companies like Uber and Lyft want people to think. He’s a geography graduate student at the University of Manitoba and the author of the book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk, which comes out this spring.
“It’s a future, it’s a possible future, but it’s by no means the only future that a government should consider,” he says.
“The reality is that a lot of people do not and will not benefit from ride-hailing. And that ride-hailing will actually make transportation systems … considerably worse.”
Instead, he thinks municipalities should be investing in public transport, bike lanes and infrastructure to support pedestrians. As for public pressure to introduce ride-hailing services, he recommends councillors take it on by being open and honest about the shortfalls in existing transit systems and commit to making them better.
“Uber and Lyft have been able to capture the public narrative by a failure of government to build decent public transit and other sustainable transportation modes,” he says.
Impacts on public transportation
As for the claim that the overwhelming majority of the public want the services, Wilt says there’s no doubt there’s public demand: the pricing structure does often make the rides cheaper than regular cab fare.
But there’s a lot going on there, he says. Uber hasn’t yet posted profits and there’s speculation that Uber is following the Amazon model, staying in the red to keep prices low in order to suffocate the competition.
“It sounds conspiratorial, but it makes a lot of sense,” he says. Pointing to the company’s Initial Public Offering filing, it seems that for Uber, that competition includes public transportation.
Halifax councillor Sam Austin says that’s certainly a concern for him.
“We’re investing a lot in transit and we need fewer cars on the road, so that is a concern we’re going to have to keep a close eye on,” he says.
Austin says the bylaws will require Uber to report ridership stats to the municipality. “Then [we] can look at it, gauge what impact it’s having and then adjust accordingly.”
He wouldn’t give specifics on what those adjustments could be.
Wilt says cities often impose licensing fees on ride-sharing companies — Halifax councillors have recommended the bylaws a tiered fee ranging from $2,000 to $25,000, depending on the number of vehicles in the fleet — and then say they’ll use those fees to upgrade public transportation, but it doesn’t offset the negative impacts of taking riders away from a public system.
What about assaults in cabs?
Austin is particularly concerned about passenger safety. Several cases of women being sexually assaulted by Halifax taxi drivers have made headlines in the past few years. On Wednesday, a Shediac woman told CBC New Brunswick she was assaulted by a taxi driver in Moncton.
“I don’t want ride hail to become the place where the cab industry’s bad apples end up,” he says. He wants to make sure suspended taxi drivers aren’t able to just pick up and start driving an Uber. To that end, he’s asked that the municipality have access to driver lists and be able to refuse their license.
That’s fine, says Wilt, but Uber also has a history of sexual assaults. Late last year, the company revealed there were more than 3,000 complaints of sexual assaults in its cars in the U.A. in 2018, and nearly 3,000 in 2017.
“I think for politicians who are understandably concerned about their constituents being harassed or assaulted by taking a cab, I don’t think the answer is to replace that with essentially a fancier cab you summon with an app,” he says.
“There is a far better way of dealing with these problems, a very public and very accountable way, if we do it through a public service as opposed to outsourcing it to these private companies.”
Companies like Uber and Lyft also fight hard to classify their drivers as contractors so they’re not entitled to employee rights and benefits. Austin says that concerns him as a citizen, but in terms of regulations, it’s a problem for provincial governments.
More car trips, more emissions
Wilt points to a growing number of studies from large urban centres in the U.S. showing Uber and Lyft ultimately contribute to more car trips, and dissuade people from using public transport, Wilt says.
For example, though Uber touts itself as a way to encourage car pooling and reduce the number of cars on the road, a 2018 study New York City transportation consultant Bruce Schaller found the opposite: ride-sharing apps added 5.7 billion miles of driving each year in the U.S.’s nine largest cities.
Those extra miles often came at the expense of cycling, walking or public transit trips, according to both Schaller’s study and this 2017 study from the University of California, Davis.
In other words, these studies suggest ride-hailing services put more cars on the road, increase driving and pull people away from greener modes of transportation.
“Which we don’t want, for a number of reasons,” Wilt says — like increased emissions. Five days after Atlantic Business Magazine spoke with Wilt, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a study showing a typical ride-hailing trip releases 69 per cent more carbon emissions than the ride it displaced.
Using electric vehicles (EVs) could alleviate that problem and, as reported by the Chronicle Herald, requiring incoming ride-sharing companies to use hybrids or EVs could be a directive in the HalifACT 2050 climate crisis plan.
Austin acknowledges that the service will come with challenges to Halifax. “And once it’s there, the genie is out of the bottle,” he says. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s a realistic approach for us to hold back the tide.”