Uber launched in Edmonton on December 18 last year, and it has been operating here illegally ever since. Now the City has put forward a draft bylaw that aims to provide a framework within which Uber can operate legally, but in a lot of ways it has just become a fight between taxis and Uber. I think this fight has shifted focus away from the bigger picture.
Taxis on the way to City Hall to protest, photo by Lincoln Ho
Edmonton’s transportation system should always be evolving to meet the needs of Edmontonians. There’s a place for taxis, but there’s also a place for new approaches to transportation like Uber.
The Way We Move, our city’s Transportation Master Plan, states:
“How easily we move through our city, the distances we must travel, the transportation choices we have and how readily we can move between different transportation modes profoundly affects our relationship with the city, the environment and each other.”
In general the strategy focuses on “mode shift” which “is about adding more walking, cycling, car-sharing and transit in Edmonton’s transportation mix.” There’s a consistent goal of offering Edmontonians more options for getting from point A to point B without needing to use their vehicles. The strategy identifies seven goals to help achieve this. Let’s look at how Uber might fit in with those.
Transportation & Land Use Integration
This goal encompasses building so-called complete communities, where people can live, work, and play, reducing the need for driving. It also highlights transit-oriented development and making it possible for people to live closer to great transit service that can get them to where they need to go.
“What we discovered is that 36% of trips started or ended within 400m of an LRT stop. Of the trips that start or end close to an LRT stop, almost 90% pick up or drop off in an area that isn’t conveniently served by public transit.”
We have a great vision for the LRT Network, but it’s a long way from being completed. Taking a train and Uber together could be a great option until more of the LRT is built out.
Access & Mobility
This goal deals with addressing the transportation needs of a diverse urban population.
“An accessible transportation system addresses the transportation needs of a diverse urban population regardless of mobility challenges or vehicle ownership.”
Believe it or not, Uber does have a story to tell here. The company often talks about the accessibility of its mobile app, which includes features for those with audio or visual impairments. In some cities, they also have UberACCESS, which “offers access to wheelchair-accessible vehicles through partnerships with fleet owners.”
Uber has also started to bring other options to Edmonton, launching uberXL earlier this year which offers spacious, high capacity vehicles.
Regulation will probably be required for this goal more than most, but Uber can play a role in ensuring Edmontonians have accessible transportation options.
Transportation Mode Shift
Though The Way We Move talks primarily about shifting transportation modes from driving to transit and active modes of transportation (cycling, walking), that can be a big shift for people to make. We know that the majority of Edmontonians agree we need to drive less, but they’re somewhat less willing to make the shift themselves.
“In recent research, 84% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘Edmontonians need to reduce driving’. however when this general desire is applied specifically to individuals, the population is essentially split 50/50 into two groups, those who are totally committed to driving and those who are potential experimenters.”
Uber, Pogo, and other services could offer a stepping stone from to the other. Why stay shackled by your car? Take an Uber to get somewhere, but then consider walking or taking transit for your next short trip. It’s incredible how stressful driving is after you haven’t had to do it for a while.
The City has long supported carpooling because it not only can help you to save money, “it’s also an efficient and sustainable way to help reduce road congestion and CO2 emissions.”
Taking Uber still means there’s a car on the road of course, but being a passenger rather than a driver is a step in the right direction (and could mean you’re more likely to use a combination of transportation modes). Uber is not really a rideshare or carpool service, though it does offer a Split Fare feature which can make it even more cost effective and which makes it possible for even more cars to be taken off the road. And that’s important:
“In 2005, the total distance travelled daily by car drivers on the Edmonton region road network was 13 million — this is projected to increase to nearly 50 million kilometers by 2044. by providing less energy intensive transportation options, we have an opportunity to reduce Edmonton’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
I think UberX is a way for us to use our vehicles more efficiently. When discussing the Sustainability goal, the TMP states:
“Promoting the reuse and redevelopment of underutilized facilities that already exist will rejuvenate our neighbourhoods and help to optimize use of infrastructure, including investments in the transportation system.”
Considering that our cars sit parked more than 90% of the time, I’d say they count as “underutilized facilities that already exist”. Why not reuse some of them to drive each other around?
Health & Safety
Obviously Uber isn’t going to do anything for emergency vehicles, nor does it do much to encourage more physical activity. This goal seems to highlight safe walking more than anything.
But on the topic of safety, there has been a lot of discussion about what’s required to ensure Edmontonians are safe taking Uber. The company does highlight background checks, vehicle inspections, and having appropriate insurance. And last week it announced a partnership with Intact Insurance here in Canada.
As I wrote when Uber launched in Edmonton, the company has attracted a lot of controversy. Clearly they have room to improve. But I wonder how many safety incidents happen in taxis all around the world that we never hear about, simply because they’re all so isolated? A safety incident in one city is going to make the news in other markets that Uber operates. I think that greater awareness and visibility into safety issues will result in safer rides for everyone, not less.
Reducing the number of cars on the road will have a positive impact on the City’s financial sustainability:
“Encouraging fewer single occupant vehicle trips reduces the pressure on the roadway system and reduces the need for increased roadway investment.”
Edmonton’s road network is already more than 4,500 km long. We have about 170 bridges. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting all that infrastructure. Any reduction in stress on those assets is a good thing!
Whether we like it or not, Uber, Lyft, and similar services are growing in popularity throughout cities all over the world. It’s easy to think that the advantage of Uber is just the app, and while that is part of it, I think the connection to a bigger network is also an important advantage. If I can use Uber in other cities I visit, why not here?
That mode shift report also discusses this idea:
“We are following the lead of today’s successful cities and creating urban environments that provide a high quality-of-place experience and quality of life for residents in order to attract the best and the brightest to their city. This includes providing the type of sustainable transportation choices that align with international preferences.”
We need to provide a range of options:
“Diversifying the transportation options and more effectively using our current infrastructure are critical to attract businesses for the sake of the economic development of the city as well as to allow an effective exchange of goods and services.”
I think Uber’s claims of job creation are questionable, especially with all the negative press they have received for not looking after their contractors. That said, there are plenty of stories of drivers who have made a positive financial change in their life thanks to Uber.
The discussion about Uber in Edmonton lately has focused primarily on the fight between taxis and Uber, understandably. Lots of Edmontonians have horror stories to share about taxis, and there’s no question that competition from Uber will have a positive impact on the industry.
But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Uber and other transportation network companies can positively contribute to Edmonton’s transportation mix. We should do what we can to allow them to operate here legally.