TORONTO – The strong-arm tactics that some Canadian cities have been using against virtual ridesharing company Uber have prompted the organization to try to mend fences with local officials even as it maintains hope for further expansion.
Municipal governments across the country have launched everything from political salvos to court injunctions against the San Francisco-based tech giant in a bid to keep its fleet of both licensed and unlicensed vehicles off city streets.
Their efforts have occasionally succeeded. While Uber still maintains a presence in Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax, it was forced to shut up shop after brief sojourns in Vancouver and Calgary.
Uber says there’s an effort afoot to cool tensions with the cities it serves before it pursues hopes to offer service in new locations.
Jeff Weshler, Uber Canada’s General Manager for Regional Expansion, says those dreams are still very much alive.
“Uber wants to be everywhere and we are constantly evaluating new opportunities,” Weshler said.
Uber has met with varying levels of resistance in nearly every Canadian city it has operated in even as it has won plaudits for its innovative business model.
Municipal officials from Vancouver to Halifax have accused the company of operating illegally at best and endangering the lives of passengers at worst.
They assert that Uber provides the services of a taxi company without complying with the licenses and regulations that govern that industry.
Critics have been particularly vocal about the company’s UberX service, which allows unlicensed drivers to offer rides in their own vehicles. Such trips are not eligible under the insurance plans that cover licensed taxi rides, and opponents describe this as only one among many safety risks associated with the practice.
Uber, in turn, argues that developing a mobile app that lets customers hail nearby cars makes it a technology company rather than a transportation firm.
This argument has fallen on deaf ears in several European cities, which have banned Uber’s services outright, even as it’s been embraced by several American jurisdictions.
The reaction has been similarly mixed in Canada, with Toronto emerging as a microcosm of the various schools of thought.
Mayor John Tory has publicly defended Uber and said companies like it are here to stay, while a recent blitz by a lone city cop saw 11 charges laid against UberX drivers in a single weekend.
Chris MacDonald, professor of Business Ethics at Ryerson University, said there’s no doubt the model has caught on in the 300 cities worldwide where Uber currently operates.
Uber has set itself apart from its many competitors as a leader in this field, he said, adding the company is clearly filling a genuine need in the market.
It’s approach has also proven highly lucrative for the moment. Wall Street investors recently valued the company at a staggering US$40 billion.
But antagonizing governments by flouting regulations does not mean the company is blazing a trail to future prosperity, he said.
“They’re going to need, in the long run, to keep a pretty broad range of stakeholders happy,” he said. “They’ve had such a wide range of stumbles.. . . Money will only get you so far through so many of those. Eventually they’ve got to kind of make peace.”
Weshler says the bans and criticisms that have dogged the company are par for the course for an organization that’s trying to revamp a long-established system, adding Uber has no plans to shy away from its opponents.
Uber has managed to win over some high-profile supporters.
Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird publicly tweeted praise for Uber after using it to put an end to a 75-minute wait for a traditional cab in Ottawa.
And the country’s Competition Bureau supported the company last November when it cautioned cities to think about whether banning their “innovative business models” was really necessary.
Weshler said he hopes Uber’s relationships with Canadian cities take a more collaborative turn, saying that negotiation is the best way to achieve mutual goals.
“Ultimately we’re all committed to the same vision of a safe and reliable way for people to get around.”