Canadians who love Uber love Uber a lot, praising the low fares, the ease of hailing a cab with an app, the ability to review drivers’ profiles and ratings before getting in a car and not having to carry cash to pay.
Yet not everybody loves how the San Francisco-based ride-sharing service is reshaping the transportation sector in the cities where it has set up shop. The UberX service empowers anyone over 21 with licence and a car in “excellent condition” to pick up passengers for money after a background check that can take just three days.
Obviously, licenced cab drivers, fearful of their livelihoods, have been the most vocal opponents, waging protests in cities ranging from Toronto and Montreal to São Paulo and Copenhagen, and launching a class action lawsuit over lost income. But it’s not just taxi drivers who are worried. Critics have a long list of concerns about how Uber does business, whether its practices are fair and whether it’s safe for consumers. The sweet deal passengers think they’re getting may be offset by potential risks down the road.
“The public is not fully aware of what’s happening and how they’re playing by their own rules,” says Jim Karygiannis, the Toronto city councillor who has been sounding the alarm about Uber since he was elected last year. “Can you be an Uber doctor, can you be an Uber teacher, an Uber chef or do Uber liquor delivery? You can’t make pizza in the back of your car and take it over to anybody who calls you. There are standards you’ve got to meet.”
A new survey by Harris Poll (on behalf of Toronto’s Beck Taxi, so take it with a grain of salt) found that among people who are familiar with UberX, most say it should be subjected to the same requirements as existing taxi services, including police background checks for drivers (87 per cent), commercial insurance that protects drivers (89 per cent) and riders (86 per cent) and regular vehicle maintenance (88 per cent). About 58 per cent of respondents familiar with UberX said the company currently meets these standards.
The lack of clarity about what Uber is, and what its obligations are, makes it difficult to point fingers and assign responsibility if problems arise. Is it a transportation company? A software company? A booking service? A sophisticated bulletin board? Are the UberX drivers employees or owner/operators? These questions are important because they have implications for insurance, taxation, security, safety standards and quality assurance. About 75 per cent of people surveyed in the Harris Poll viewed Uber as a taxi service more than as a technology company, ride-sharing company or mobile app provider.
Karygiannis suggests Uber benefits from all this fuzziness since it makes it hard for government to apply existing laws. The company has said drivers are responsible for collecting GST or HST, but Karygiannis says Uber does not ensure that happens.
“They have shown no respect for laws, rules and regulations, he wrote in an open letter this month, “and even if we ask for compliance, they will find ways to go around these requests.”
This alleged lawlessness has prompted Uber opponents in places like Sydney Australia, to try to make citizen’s arrests of Uber drivers, though police officers have shown little interest in getting involved. Of course, sometimes laws are bad and unnecessary, but in many cases they prevent harm from happening and when problems do happen, ensure that victims have proper recourse. “Sooner or later, there’s going to be a really bad incident and this is all going to unravel,” says John Papadakis, a Toronto paralegal and former city council candidate who thinks the city should be cracking down on ride sharing.
Although Uber has claimed that its Canadian drivers are covered by insurance, the company is currently negotiating with Intact, one of Canada’s largest auto insurance providers, to come up with a specific ride-sharing product. To critics, this move suggests that currently available insurance policies don’t cover what Uber is doing.
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