Uber says it's a marketplace matching independent drivers with passengers through its smartphone app, not a conventional taxi company.

Uber says it's a marketplace matching independent drivers with passengers through its smartphone app, not a conventional taxi company.

Taxi ‘turmoil’ ahead as Uber eyes Vancouver market

Service standards a concern if ride-sharing tech giant arrives in B.C.

A renewed drive by U.S.-based ride-sharing service Uber to enter the B.C. market is fanning fears that the tech firm may disrupt the taxi industry and leave spotty service in its wake.

Uber is advertising for drivers in the Vancouver area and its arrival would crack open a highly regulated cab industry, potentially bringing lower prices and more taxi availability for passengers.

Instead of flagging Uber cars down, users connect with drivers of private cars through the company’s smartphone app. The firm also uses methods like variable pricing – fares can double or triple in rainy weather or at peak times to attract enough drivers to match demand.

Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs expects a period of “real turmoil” ahead for taxi operators – San Francisco cabbies saw their revenues plunge 40 per cent after Uber launched.

“That’s devastating and it makes it very, very difficult for the existing industry to survive, never mind support specialized services like accessible taxis,” Meggs said.

Most Metro Vancouver cab firms have invested heavily to convert to electric hybrids and Meggs said it’s unclear whether Uber’s arrival would mean backsliding on emissions.

He met Uber reps earlier in September – they are to address Vancouver council Wednesday – and Meggs believes they will operate not just in Vancouver but in other Lower Mainland suburbs, with or without regulatory approval.

“I don’t have any sense they’re going to restrict their operations to the City of Vancouver,” Meggs said, adding taxi firms in other communities may be even more vulnerable to Uber because their markets are smaller.

Uber tried in 2012 to enter Vancouver but backed out after B.C.’s Passenger Transportation Board said it could operate only as a limousine service charging a minimum $75 a ride.

The company has argued elsewhere it’s a technology firm not a taxi company and therefore need not have vehicles or drivers licensed as taxis.

Vancouver council is expected to freeze the issuance of any new taxi licences for the next six months while it studies evolving issues in the taxi industry, including demand for new ride-sharing technologies.

At least one taxi firm has already warned its drivers they’ll be fired if they sign up with Uber.

But B.C. Taxi Association president Mohan Kang downplays the chances Uber will actually get rolling here.

“The government is not going to allow illegal operations,” he predicted.

Kang said it’s unclear whether Uber drivers would be adequately insured and subject to various regulations that apply to taxi drivers, including criminal record checks.

Jane Dyson, executive director of Disability Alliance BC (formerly the B.C. Coalition for People with Disabilities) said she’s concerned Uber drivers won’t have training to work with people with disabilities as is required of Metro taxi drivers.

She said Uber drivers also would not accept TransLink TaxiSaver coupons, which offer elderly or disabled HandyDart clients half-price taxi subsidies.

Kang said Metro Vancouver taxi firms are meanwhile preparing to launch their own booking app.

Uber calls the taxi industries of most cities “stagnant” and in need of an injection of innovation and diversity.

The $18-billion company has grown rapidly since launching in San Francisco and now operates in more than 200 cities worldwide, including Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.