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British Columbia We must ensure Vancouver learns from other cities’ ride-hailing-service missteps

The Uber app is displayed on an iPhone as taxi drivers wait for passengers in downtown Vancouver, B.C.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver writer who writes about civic affairs

To use a ride-hailing service, whether it’s Lyft in Los Angeles or GrabBike in Southeast Asia, is to love it. The clever app shows you how many vehicles are nearby, and in large cities it seems there are always at least five. Then it charts the progress of your car or bike and allows you to tip and rate your driver, all online.

Vancouver taxi companies have tried to emulate the app with limited success. But with a fixed number of cabs under licence, it doesn’t much matter. Imagine trying to get home late on a rainy Saturday night and spending two hours watching cabs circling around Vancouver picking up everyone except you.

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In British Columbia, the rollout of Uber and other ride-hailing services has been stalled by taxi companies. Despite restricted numbers that at times make for abysmal service, the cab companies are a powerful voting bloc in some ridings and effectively lobbied both our provincial and municipal governments to hold off. That will soon be over. The provincial government has cleared the way for Uber and Lyft and promised the ride-hailing services will be available come fall.

As much as we mutter, “It’s about time,” there is one big advantage to being late to the Uber party: We can learn from the mistakes of others.

Uber was once hailed as a green transportation alternative that would complement public transit and perhaps even enable people to ditch their cars. More recently, studies show traffic congestion has increased and transit ridership dropped in some Uber-friendly cities.

The largest study, done in 2017 by transportation researchers at University of California Davis, surveyed 4,000 ride-hailing users in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Washington and the San Francisco Bay Area. It found most users hung onto their personal vehicles and ditched their car-share memberships instead. The study also found ride-hailing services were responsible for a 6-per-cent reduction in transit use, particularly on buses and light rail. It was, however, complementary to commuter rail, which bodes well for our train ridership. But perhaps the most troubling revelation was learning that between 49 and 61 per cent of ride-hailing trips would not have been taken had the service not been available. Over all, the researchers concluded ride-hailing contributes to a net growth of miles travelled in vehicles.

Vancouver transportation planners are right to be concerned about ride-hailing ramifications, which could include both increased congestion and carbon-dioxide emissions. So, council has voted to request ride-hailing trip data and ask the province to leave the door open to a congestion fee for those companies once the services get rolling.

These are reasonable demands, given that Vancouver earlier this month joined London and Los Angeles in declaring a climate emergency and is searching for new ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The last thing Vancouver needs is to backslide by jamming the streets with more cars.

Taxis have never been a bargain. And we will lose our incentive to use transit, walk and cycle, if Uber rates are too low, yet the province’s new ride-hailing regulations prohibit municipalities from dictating the rates or numbers of Uber and Lyft cars. The province should allow municipalities some control over numbers by allowing congestion fees. The city (or more properly, Metro Vancouver) will need data from ride-hailing apps to make informed decisions about traffic patterns that, until recently, Uber has been reluctant to provide.

However, the company is starting to come around. Faced with increasingly clogged streets, New York became the first city in the world to limit the numbers of ride-hailing vehicles. Uber has responded by contributing millions to help cities with transportation policy, which makes sense since congestion ultimately cuts its own profits.

This fall in the United States, Uber, Lyft and Ford also agreed to start sharing data on speeding and passenger pick-up and drop-off through SharedStreets, a data platform designed to help transportation planners. We must insist on the same information.

In the latest Greenest City Report to council the number of trips in Vancouver made by walking, cycling and transit was nearing 50 per cent, the highest of any Canadian city. We should ensure ride-hailing, handy as it is, doesn’t push this trend in the opposite direction.

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