Uber launches in Edmonton

As of 10am this morning, you can now use Uber in Edmonton to get a ride to your next destination. Uber is a smartphone app and platform that connects you with a driver, as an alternative to hailing a taxi, taking public transportation, or driving yourself. It is sometimes called a ride-sharing app. Edmonton is the fourth Canadian city for Uber, which already operates in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Since launching in San Francisco in 2009, the company has expanded to 53 countries and more than 230 cities worldwide. An Uber representative bought me a beer last night to discuss the service.

To help launch the service in Edmonton, Uber has teamed up with Goodwill to hold a clothing drive. You can open the Uber app on December 18 and click a special donate button to have a car come and pick up a donation of clothing for free. The #UberClothingDrive runs from 10am to 5pm, and is also happening in Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto.

Uber now offers a range of services and the specific one launching here in Edmonton is UberX, which consists of “everyday cars for everyday use.” It’s their lowest cost offering and is described as follows by Uber:

“Peer-to-peer ride sharing offered by insured drivers who have undergone extensive background scrutiny, are fully insured and are tracked and rated through Uber technology; rides are charged at a base rate, plus time and distance.”

They say you can expect to pay about 30% less than a comparable taxi ride, and the price can drop even further if you split fares with other Uber members or use UberPOOL (which is a way to share cars with other riders who are travelling to and from nearby locations). UberPOOL isn’t available in Edmonton yet, but it will be eventually.

I’m not going to go into more detail about how Uber works here, but you can learn all about it at the Uber support site. Drivers are contractors, not employees, and Uber does not own or operate any cars itself. If you want to sign up to be a driver for Uber in Edmonton, you can do so here.

Early supporters in Edmonton

Many Edmontonians have come out in support of Uber, including some pretty high profile ones.

Back in September, Davic MacLean wrote an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal supporting Uber. Here’s what the Alberta Enterprise Group Vice President had to say:

“Ridesharing services are the future of the taxi industry, but we need to get the regulatory structure right. Policy-makers must find a way to respect the investments existing drivers and taxi companies have made into their businesses while, at the same time, promoting consumer choice without sacrificing safety.”

In an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal yesterday, Chris LaBossiere also made the case for Uber:

“With each of Uber’s product levels, from private citizen-driven uberX cars, to uberTAXI or the more luxurious uberBLACK car service, I have experienced a better product, at a significantly reduced price.”

Uber’s “rider zero”, the first person to officially use the service in Edmonton, is former Mayor Bill Smith.


Photo by Moments in Digital

“It’s great to see innovative and new business models like Uber come to Edmonton,” stated former Mayor Bill Smith. “I’ve always believed that embracing change is the best path to success. Uber’s technology will create opportunity and more transportation options for our citizens, helping this city continue to grow.”

A few weeks ago, Paula Simons hit on another reason why Edmontonians will support Uber:

“The dated oligopoly model simply doesn’t offer enough competition to improve customer service — as any Edmontonian who has been stranded on a snowy street corner by a phantom cab can attest. If Edmonton taxi companies and city officials don’t want Uber here, they need to deliver better service.”

More broadly in Canada, the Competition Bureau has publicly stated they see benefits from Uber. They encouraged municipalities to explore “whether less restrictive regulations could adequately address their concerns.”

The road to launch in Edmonton

There’s nothing from a legal or regulatory point-of-view that has changed to make Uber’s foray into Edmonton possible, so there is a little bit of uncertainty regarding how the service will be received.

Uber has met with City of Edmonton officials a couple of times over the last few months, but so far the response has been icy. Garry Dziwenka, Director of Business Licensing and Vehicle for Hire, has said the city is particularly worried about UberX. In some cities Uber drivers have been charged with bylaw infractions, sometimes through sting operations. The same thing could happen here in Edmonton.

At the September 2 meeting of Executive Committee, Mayor Iveson made an inquiry about third-party apps like Uber and their relation to the Vehicle for Hire regulations. A report is due back from City Administration in January, and Uber has said it will be there to discuss the findings.

The taxi industry is understandably worried about Uber. About a month ago, the Edmonton Taxi Service Group noted the legal battle Uber faces in Vancouver and said that if the company came to Edmonton, “we’ll do what we have to do”. They’re ready to go to court. The Vehicle for Hire Industry Advisory Group has discussed Uber at each of its last four meetings. A cooperative group made up of members of the taxi and limousine industry, the advisory group has no power to govern the industry but is convened by the City to provide advice (City Council’s Vehicle for Hire Commission was disbanded in March 2012). The advisory group was slated to discuss the pending report in response to Mayor Iveson’s inquiry last week.

It could just be coincidence, but I’ve noticed a concerted effort by the City to educate citizens about illegal cabs recently. The campaign began around Halloween and included a survey on the Edmonton Insight Community. Earlier this month the City announced you can now report problem cabs using your smartphone. Again, it could just be a coincidence, but the timing does seem suspect.

In his op-ed yesterday, Chris LaBossiere discussed the debate about Uber in Edmonton:

“Cities around the world are fighting ride-sharing services, instead of adapting to work with them. My own discussions with some of our politicians and bureaucrats lead me to believe that Edmonton will be no different.”

I tend to agree. He continued:

“We are about to see a fierce debate play out in our city. The taxi industry will fight ride-sharing services. They naturally want to protect their monopoly. Some establishment-thinking politicians and bureaucrats will lack the courage to change our regulations and accept a product that virtually everyone wants.”

I am happy to see Uber launch in Edmonton and I believe their participation in the transportation marketplace will ultimately be a good thing for Edmontonians. It won’t be easy though.

Controversy seems to follow Uber

To say that Uber is controversial might be an understatement, and not just with taxi companies. They have been sued by Los Angeles and San Francisco, they’re banned in Dehli, the company faces dozens of charges and legal troubles in Toronto (despite support from Mayor John Tory), and their business practices have been increasingly under the microscope. Uber is accused of digging up dirt on journalists who criticize the company, and they got into a very public fight with PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy as a result. They’re also accused of creating thousands of fake requests to cause trouble for rival service Lyft.

Here’s a collection of headlines I came across just this week related to Uber:

I’m generally a believer that where there’s smoke there’s fire, so it’s definitely worrying to hear of Uber’s questionable business practices. Do I want to do business with a company that seems to play dirty so brazenly?

On the other hand, Uber is a disruptive force all around the world. They’re attacking established markets in hundreds of cities all with different rules and regulations and all at the same time. They need to be aggressive if they’re going to succeed, and they’re going to ruffle a few feathers along the way.

What’s next?

I used Uber in Miami last week, and I plan to use it here in Edmonton also. Along with public transportation and carsharing services like Pogo, having Uber in Edmonton makes the prospect of not owning a vehicle even more realistic. It’ll be a positive force for competition in the city.

I have no doubt that Uber competitors like Lyft will follow (in fact they tweeted to me that they’d like to come up to Edmonton soon). If Uber has already done the heavy lifting, why not enter the market also? I wouldn’t expect that to happen until whatever legal tussles that might occur have been dealt with, but it’ll happen.

Uber is here and they’re here to stay. They’ll fight whatever challenges come up just as they have done in other markets. If the service is embraced by Edmontonians, the regulations and monopolies will eventually give way. For the next month they’ll be flying a little under the radar, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens after the City report is released in January. Get ready for some fireworks!

You can follow Uber in Edmonton on Twitter. Here’s their official blog post about UberX in Edmonton.