Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Fears of congestion and a powerful taxi lobby have long kept ride-hailing apps out of transit-friendly Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s about to change.
VANCOUVER—It wouldn’t be very Canadian to brag about one’s advantages. But on the world stage of well-planned cities, Vancouver has a lot to envy.
Stitched around its ribbony shoreline, glassy high-rises, and ample urban forest is a public transit system that was recently voted North America’s best. Skytrain, the world’s longest fully automated rail network, hauls more than 495,000 passengers per day. Downtown buses arrive speedily—one bus route along Broadway comes every three minutes and moves 60,000 riders per day, the most in U.S. or Canada. Add in passenger ferries and a booming bikeshare program, and it’s little surprise that 53 percent of Vancouverites manage to get to work by means other than driving.
One thing is conspicuously missing from this urbanist dreamscape: ride-hailing. Uber tried to railroad its way into Vancouver in 2012, but British Columbia regulators brought the smackdown, officially notifying the company that the province’s official minimum rate for limousines was $75 per trip. Ever since, Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies (TNCs) have been snowed out of the region. Vancouver appears to be the last major city in North America with an effective ban on the app-based services.
But those days are numbered. Applications to operate a TNC in British Columbia opened on September 3, and a requisite insurance package became available on September 16. Uber and Lyft have officially applied. “I am thrilled to soon launch Lyft’s world-class ridesharing service in Vancouver, as part of our effort to
positively contribute to B.C. communities and bring spontaneous and reliable transportation to the region,” Peter Lukomskyj, the general manager of Lyft B.C., said in a statement. Michael van Hemmen, the head of Uber for Western Canada, said that he hopes that his company’s first trip in greater Vancouver will take place by the holiday season.
It can’t come soon enough for advocates like Ian Tostenson, the president of Ridesharing Now For B.C. “It’s going to help people be more mobile and help people live outside of city,” he said. As the city’s population and economy grows, “we need as much transportation as we can get.”
But while elected officials and administrators around B.C. largely agree that it’s time to get with the program, they’re on guard. Over the years, Vancouver has watched as its peers have dealt with the darker sides of Uber and Lyft: muddy passenger safety records, negative impacts on congestion and emissions, flouting of local regulations, and widely criticized labor practices.
Now B.C. transportation leaders are cautiously optimistic that being a last-adopter will prove to be a virtue. They hope that strict data-sharing requirements, a stringent licensing scheme for drivers, and a long-term vision to mitigate added traffic with fees on curbside access and downtown streets at rush hour will help make ride-hailing more sustainable here.
“It’s not to say that we’re better than other cities,” said Andrew McCurran, the director of strategic planning and policy for Translink, the transit agency serving metropolitan Vancouver. “But we’ve had the benefit of learning from other mistakes.”
Slow incrementalism was not necessarily the master plan for Vancouver. Pressure from the taxi industry is what kept ride-hailing at bay in British Columbia. The previous provincial government spent years studying and planning for the services, but failed to follow through with appropriate regulations. Over the years, a few homegrown ride-hailing-esque services have popped up in the vacuum. There’s Kater, a locally owned, smartphone-based service that rents out its own vehicles to part-time drivers. And several unlicensed Mandarin-language ride-hailing apps are used by the city’s large Chinese population.
But living without the two dominant ride-hailing companies can be frustrating for Vancouverites who are sensitive to the city’s emerging status as a tech capital, and for visitors and newcomers who rely on Uber and Lyft in other cities. Although 90 percent of metro Vancouver residents live within a short walk of public transit, not all neighborhoods are well-served around the clock. Someone leaving a bar late at night in a disconnected part of town must actually plan her trip home in advance—a reasonable expectation less than 10 years ago, but fairly disorienting for a plugged-in North American smartphone user in a big city of 2019.
Apart from convenience and predictability, another reason that ride-hailing is increasingly appealing in Vancouver is the city’s affordability crisis. A pleasant climate, healthy economy, and recent flood of foreign investment has made Vancouver one of the least affordable cities in the world, ranked second only to Hong Kong in a recent survey. As housing costs lift out of reach for middle- and low-income residents, some are being forced to move out farther from reliable transit options, said Heather McCain, the founder and executive director of Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods, an advocacy group focused on mobility for disabled and low-income riders. “It used to be that you could choose where you live, and one priority was transport,” she said. “Now our members are having to pay more to live near access transportation than they can afford.”
Tostenson, whose day job is leading the B.C. Restaurant Association, said that many businesses he represents have workers commuting from those far-flung neighborhoods. Being able to quickly summon a late-night ride home after their shifts end would make their lives easier, he said. Ride-hailing services could also help improve access for riders who use wheelchairs, many of whom have “horrendous stories” about traditional taxi drivers refusing rides or assistance, McCain added. Uber and Lyft themselves have patchy records on providing trips to customers with disabilities, but she’s hopes that more competition will improve the riding experience overall.
In 2017, a new provincial administration led by B.C. Premier John Horgan came to power, promising to finally bring Uber and Lyft to town. It has kept its word: New regulations were finalized in August.
Meanwhile, TransLink’s buses, trains, and ferries are swelling with riders: Vancouver’s system-wide boardings jumped more than 7 percent in 2018, following nearly 6 percent growth in 2017. That stands in contrast to most major cities in the U.S., where public transit ridership has fallen by more than 7 percent from its peak in 2008.
McCurran ascribes his city’s mass-transit momentum to a variety of factors. Chiefly, Vancouver’s population and economy are growing, which means that more trips are happening, period. But shrewd urban planning is also key: The city’s rejection of a major viaduct in the 1960s discouraged commuters from driving downtown, and many job centers and housing developments are located close together. High gas prices also disincentivize driving, while steady expansion across Translink have offered alternatives for commuters. Just last year, leaders approved $7 billion investment in transportation improvements, the region’s biggest boost to date.
Somewhere in this mix of ingredients for transit’s success: the absence of Uber and Lyft, which have proven to be mortal foes of many transit systems in North America. A study from the University of Kentucky published earlier this year found that for every year that ride-hailing operated in 14 major U.S. cities, bus ridership fell by 1.7 percent, and rail ridership fell by 1.4 percent. That means that, over an eight-year span, TNCs might be responsible for nearly 13 percent of declining bus ridership in a given city.
Those extra car trips have led to measurably more traffic. In San Francisco, a study by the SFMTA found that 50 percent of increased traffic delays between 2010 and 2016 in that city could be linked to Uber and Lyft. A report from the ride-hailing companies themselves showed that they made up roughly 13 percent of San Francisco’s overall vehicle travel in a single month in 2018—a stunning share for a service that winked into existence less than decade earlier.
Determined to avoid these ill effects, B.C. regulators assembled various safeguards. Most prominently: Local Uber and Lyft drivers will have to obtain commercial driver’s licenses, something that only a few cities in the world have opted to do. Obtaining the license requires a fee and several exams, which is expected to slow the the crush of prospective drivers. It is also intended to create safer conditions for passengers, said Bowinn Ma, a provincial legislator representing North Vancouver-Lonsdale area and the chair of a committee that advises regulations set by the Passenger Transportation Board. The story of a young man killed in a collision involving an Uber driver in Toronto, which had rolled back safety training requirements, was a major impetus. “We don’t want to repeat the mistakes that others have made,” Ma said.
Local officials are also intent on mitigating congestion impacts or negative effects on transit ridership. To keep an eye on how many cars are on the road, B.C.’s new regulations require ride-hailing companies to share data upon request, including trip rates, wait times, and the times and locations of pick-ups and drop-offs. Over time, local and provincial governments may consider pricing schemes that encourage certain types of ride-hailing trips and discourage others, such as charging fees to access curbside pick-up zones, said McCurran.* The revenue could potentially help subsidize certain types of ride-hailing trips, such as those that connect to TransLink stations.
Protecting transit ridership is “very concerning to us when we have a system that is one of the best in the world,” said Ma. “We want to make sure we’re going to manage it well enough without shooting ourselves in the foot.”
But any kind of road pricing system—certainly one at a B.C.-wide level—is probably years away. As it is, not everyone agrees that ride-hailing should even exist: Local cab companies argue that they’ll be at a major competitive disadvantage when the new service arrives, given that there will be no cap on the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles allowed. A coalition of local taxi providers filed a petition to the B.C. Supreme Court this month, arguing that ride-hailing should not be allowed under these circumstances And the mayor of Surrey, a fast-growing community at the southeastern edge of metro Vancouver, recently vowed to hundreds of cabbies that Uber and Lyft would never be allowed to operate in his town. (The province quickly clarified that such a ban would not be legal.)
This is happening as Uber and Lyft enter into an era of heightened uncertainty south of the Canadian border. California just passed a major worker reclassification bill that could upend the basic contractor-based labor model that the companies depend on, and both newly public companies continue to lose tens of millions of dollars per day. Uber and Lyft may need to set fares higher than the bargains they’ve provided to date, which may put a damper on their popularity.
For now, TransLink is coordinating and facilitating conversations across B.C. communities to unify local ride-hailing regulations and prepare them for what might happen next. McCurran is hopeful that Vancouver will be able to pull off something that no city on the continent has really been able to do—welcome ride-hailing as a complement, rather than a competitor, to public transit.
He sees Seattle and New York City as dual indicators of what’s to come: Despite its expansive subway system and compact, walking-friendly layout, New York has seen declines in transit use due to significant infrastructure problems and a maintenance backlog; Uber and Lyft have scooped up many former subway commuters who can afford to flee. Meanwhile, Seattle has ramped up investment in high-quality bus routes and light-rail links in recent years. That has helped put transit ridership on a modest upswing, even with Uber and Lyft on the prowl.
As it stands, Vancouver’s transportation landscape is well positioned to nurture different forms of travel. “I think we will likely experience a slowdown in transit ridership when they arrive,” said McCurran. “But I don’t think we’re in a situation where we can expect to see absolute declines any time soon.”
David Zipper, a transportation consultant who works with TransLink (and a CityLab contributor), agrees. To him, the power of the agency to help facilitate, and fund, helpful tweaks to the region’s transportation network over time also sets it apart. “TransLink can play a role to make sure transit syncs up with ride-hail and scooter-share to the best extent possible,” he said. (B.C. currently doesn’t allow dockless bikes and scooters.)
In contrast with U.S. cities that have rushed to be first to the table with new mobility offerings—be they autonomous cars, hyperloops, or drones—Vancouver may prove that is pays to be last.
Of course, for ride-hailing advocates like Tostenson, it’s long past time for the city’s roads to enter the on-demand-ride era. McCain, the advocate for affordable, accessible mobility, is more ambivalent. She welcomes more car-based service for the riders who really need them, and notes that an aging population will only magnify that. But North America’s transportation sector composes a huge share of its carbon footprint, and right now Vancouver is on a positive trajectory towards cutting its emissions.
“Anything where we can have accessible transportation is so important,” she said. “But how do we make sure we’re not worsening the world by having all of this?”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article inaccurately suggested that metro Vancouver is considering a congestion pricing scheme similar to New York City’s.