If you've not heard of Uber, then you're missing something that crosses the new frontier of social media, mobile communications and on-demand service. A service in more than 200 cities and growing, Uber aims to connect people who need rides with people who have rides, be they licensed taxis, driving services or private citizens in their own car, and it seems that Kitchener may be the next branch office. Yesterday, Uber held two information sessions for potential drivers, and it's unclear how much interest was expressed. What's also unclear? Whether or not the Region of Waterloo will let it happen if the interest is, indeed, there.
“This is all part of our ongoing process to continue to explore expansion across the country,” Uber spokesman Xavier Van Chau told CTV News. He called the sessions “marketing efforts to assess interest for potential partner drivers.”
There are a couple of levels to Uber. One part of the smart phone app allows you to find taxi cabs and other licensed driving services in the area, like, using a Guelph example, Red Car. The more controversial part is Uber-X, which allows people to turn their vehicles into ad hoc taxi cabs, charging fares and co-ordinating services through the app. To be an Uber-X driver, you are required to be 21, have an insured four-door automobile, and submit yourself for a background track. Once you're in, you log on, and turn your ride into a hack and take people around town as needed.Uber, which was launched in 2009, has been received with controversy in many of the other Canadian cities it's been launched in. Many municipalities, including Toronto and Ottawa, have put taxi operators and Uber into conflict for the right to drive people in their respective cities, local councils often caught in the middle with proponents on both sides. In the first couple of months of Uber's operation in the capital, the city's hardline stand against Uber resulted in over a dozen charges against Uber drivers for operating an illegal taxi. "I want the company to follow the rules like every other taxi driver has to, and that's our bottom line," Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told the CBC in December.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, then Mayor-Elect John Tory said that he wouldn't take a hardline tact against Uber. "I just think we use what I'll call old-fashioned methods like court cases … when in fact these kinds of technological changes are here to stay," he explained in a press conference.
But Uber concerns went beyond a municipal matter in December when Ottawa South MPP John Fraser introduced a private members bill at Queens Park called the Protecting Passenger Safety Act. If it becomes law, the PPSA would create a wide-range of new punishments for people found violating taxi regulations by acting as Uber drivers including a maximum $30,000 fine, and potential vehicle impounding or 30-day license suspension for repeat offenders.
"Strong legislation is needed to protect the public against bandit taxis in Ontario," said Amrik Singh, president of Unifor Local 1688 in Ottawa, in a press release announcing the bill, which has the support of Unifor given they represent thousands of taxi drivers in the province.
The conflict in K-W seems to follow along the same lines, with the Region of Waterloo, who licenses all taxis for Kitchener and area, citing concerns about how Uber's mandate runs counter to established laws and by-laws for how taxis operate in the Tri-Cities. “Until we receive either greater clarity and/or additional information from Uber, the region will continue to be concerned,” said regional clerk Kris Fletcher.
Concerned thought they may be, one has to wonder if Tory is correct in his assessment. For instance, did the recording industry's Herculean effort to shut down Napster stop music downloading, or did that industry end up having to bend and acclimate to the new technological reality. If you've ever shopped on iTunes then you already have your answer.
That's not to discount the safety issue, of course. So called "gypsy cabs" have a bad reputation for being crime magnets, driven by opportunists who look to rip off or do violence to unsuspecting passengers in the worst case scenario. The flip side is concern about the road safety of the drivers themselves, are they a hazard to themselves or others behind the wheel? It should a relief then that as outlined by Business Insider, the nature of Uber's operation demands a high water mark be met by its drivers, their results and customer satisfaction ratings carefully monitored. Not only that, but since no physical money changes hand, and the main operating device, the driver's phone, also working as a GPS, one could argue that Uber is an even safer option than a regular taxi.
So aside from that, what's the appeal of Uber in someplace like Kitchener, or even Guelph for that matter? Well, I'm not sure about our neighbours up the road, but have you tried to get a taxi in Guelph between 11 pm and 3 am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night? Exactly, and there are still other times when you can call Canadian Cab, Red Top Taxi, and the upstart Guelph Taxi and just get a busy signal or an unending ring on the other end of the phone. Wouldn't it be nice if there was another way to get a taxi? What if you didn't have to lean on the Big Three... Well, Big Two-and-a-half?
The struggle in hailing a taxi cab in Kitchener is unknown to me personally. Google "Kitchener taxi" and you're given three names, which is at least how many you get for Googling "Guelph taxi," but serving an area three times our size in terms of population and with twice as many universities. I'd bet good money on a lot of frustrated people in K-W looking for a viable option to their "Big Three."