Vancouver fleshing out new taxi code

Council at odds on how to regulate firms like Uber

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter

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This month, the city of Vancouver will continue fleshing out a new taxi code as the council remains at odds on how strictly to regulate companies such as Uber.

The council discussed the issue in a Monday afternoon workshop, concluding that a new code should aim to keep price-gouging under control and require taxi drivers — whether with traditional services or new-wave transportation networks, such as Uber — to identify their company on the car. The issue has been part of an ongoing discussion for months as the council intends to make it legal for Uber to continue operating in the city.

Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilor Alishia Topper shared concerns about how to restrict price-gouging, especially during major events, such as the Super Bowl.

“I like the idea of letting it get competitive, letting the market drive the rate,” Topper said. “At the same time, how do we ensure that people aren’t getting gouged?”

Councilor Jack Burkman said in some ways the system is built to keep companies in check through online reviews.

“If I got hit with that, I certainly would not be giving four stars to an Uber driver,” Burkman said. “I’d see their rating plummeting quickly. I mean, there’s a rapid feedback in there.”

Burkman added that he sees the situation as an example of normal evolution in a new marketplace for something like Uber, and he cautioned the council from getting too involved in regulating the new industry.

Vancouver is already home to dozens of unpermitted Uber drivers competing with three licensed cab companies. City staffers told the councilors Monday that Vancouver’s taxi code is no longer cost-effective for the fast-changing taxi industry. Instead, the city is looking to adopt a more streamlined, partially deregulated approach that would attempt to level the playing field for traditional taxi companies and transportation networks, including Uber and Lyft.

The city hopes to treat taxi companies and transportation networks the same, charging each a $200 certification fee and requiring business licences. New definitions for taxi companies and transportation networks would be set out in the code, and the city would strike all standing regulations on fares.

The councilors expressed little faith that the state would set any regulatory precedent on the issue anytime soon. Nonetheless, legislation is in the works.

The state Senate Transportation Committee held a contentious hearing Monday on a bill designed to regulate Uber and similar companies. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said Uber could be a healthy piece of public transit, but lawmakers have work to do first.

The Vancouver City Council will take its first look at the proposed language of a new taxi code Feb. 9. A public hearing on the proposal is also in the works for Feb. 23.