By R. Bruce Striegler

After tolerating the dubious distinction of being the only major location in North America where ridesharing services like Uber or Lyft have been prevented from operating, residents and visitors to British Columbia will soon have the option of using a rideshare service to get where they’re going. In July this year, the government of British Columbia announced its regulations on licensing and insurance for rideshare firms to operate in B.C., while inviting companies to apply to operate through the Passenger Transportation Board. Claire Trevena, the Province’s Transportation Minister, said, “Our plan has made it possible for ride-hailing companies to apply to enter the market this fall, with vehicles on the road later this year, while ensuring the safety of passengers and promoting accessibility options in the industry.” She continued, saying, “British Columbians have been asking and waiting for these services after more than five years of delay by the former government. We took action to allow for the services people want and we’re delivering on that promise.” What the Minister didn’t say in her announcement was that on top of the five years of waiting under the previous government, the public further waited another three years under her government.

Most of our readers are surely familiar with the animated stories or television news items extolling the virtues of the digital economy, the gig economy, ridesharing and how this is changing the future of transportation in Canada, as well as our economic future. But several aspects or ridesharing are receiving a very different kind of attention from transportation planners whose studies are now showing how ridesharing is responsible for increasing congestion in many cities and is reducing public transportation ridership. In Toronto this summer, a report from Ryerson’s Urban Analytics Institute found that ridesharing is responsible for a significant increase in vehicular traffic in Toronto, adding millions of additional trips per year, predominantly in the downtown. “The analysis by the City of Toronto revealed that rideshare vehicles, also called transportation network companies (TNCs) were making on average 176,000 trips every day in Toronto,” stated the report.

Disruptive technology brings unforeseen disorder

The City of Toronto found that 49 per cent of travellers would have taken public transit if they did not have access to Uber or Lyft. The Ryerson report estimates that the number of annual public transit trips would increase about 20 million a year if TNC rides were not available. The industry boasts staggering statistics; Uber is currently available in 17 cities across the country. By way of comparison, during its two years in Canada, Turo, a carshare service, managed to draw 350,000 users to its platform, which lists more than 10,000 vehicles, and even before its debut, Toronto was already gearing up to go for a ride with Lyft. The app received more than 50,000 downloads in Toronto prior to official launch. But it’s also true that Uber often ran roughshod over municipal governments in its race to establish market dominance, exhibiting unmistakable disdain for mayors, regulatory authorities and taxi unions, leaving cities justifiably concerned.

Although there have been a number of studies conducted by American cities into impacts of ridesharing on congestion, one is considered a landmark review. Released in late 2018, TNCs & Congestion, prepared by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority or SFCTA, proved that when compared to employment and population growth and network capacity shifts (such as for a bus or bicycle lane), TNCs accounted for approximately 50 per cent of the increase in congestion in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016, as indicated by three congestion measures: vehicle hours of delay, vehicle miles travelled, and average speeds. Employment and population growth—encompassing citywide non-TNC driving activity by residents, local and regional workers, and visitors—are primarily responsible for the remainder of the change in congestion.

The report says, “Daily vehicle hours of delay on the roadways studied increased by about 40,000 hours during the study period. We estimate TNCs account for 51 percent of this increase in delay, and for about 25 percent of the total delay on San Francisco roadways and about 36 percent of total delay in the downtown core in 2016, with employment and population growth accounting for most of the balance of the increased in delay.” The report further states that daily vehicle miles travelled on study roadways increased by over 630,000 miles. “We estimate TNCs account for 47 percent of this increase, and for about 5 percent of total on study roadways in 2016.”

Furthermore, average speeds on study roadways declined by about 3.1 miles per hour, and the study concluded that TNCs account for 55 percent of that decline. Congestion was observed throughout the city, but effects were concentrated in the densest parts of the city and along many of the city’s busiest corridors. Further, the report estimates that Uber and Lyft have reduced bus ridership in San Francisco by a staggering 12.7 per cent since they entered the market in 2010. In recent years, the vehicles of transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft have become ubiquitous. Worldwide, the total number of rides on Uber and Lyft grew from an estimated 190 million in 2014 to over 2 billion by mid-2016.

Back in Vancouver, many politicians protest ridesharing while congestion mounts

A massive re-organization and implementation of a new rate structure for the province’s monopoly government-owned auto insurer, Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), has resulted in the removal of a major impediment to ridesharing in BC, with ICBC introducing a new class of insurance premiums for drivers and vehicles operating with ridesharing companies. However, significant opposition has from Metro Vancouver’s taxi industry has remained, and some Metro Vancouver mayors are also taking stands against ridesharing.

Recently, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum said he’s concerned about a “fair playing field.” With what appeared to be genuine concern, he suggested that fleet sizes of rideshare companies should be restricted, so that the taxi industry could retain market share. As many have observed, the taxi industry isn’t in trouble because the playing field isn’t level, it’s in trouble because the industry does not appear to have improved its business model or service since taxis were first introduced a century ago. Vancouver has four of the top twenty bottlenecks in Canada, which result in an additional ten million hours of travel time each year. Unlike Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver has no expressways serving its downtown core, which also means vehicles are jammed onto smaller streets and move at slower speeds. Not aiding the situation is the presence of the port of Vancouver, tucked tightly up against the downtown, with several additional high-capacity container terminals located in several high-traffic locations around Metro Vancouver.

Working to avoid congestion in Canada’s Asia Pacific Gateway

A 2017 report from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Stuck In Traffic for 10,000 Years, found that congestion in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal is responsible for adding nearly 88 million hours annually to Canadians’ commutes. The report also notes that the economic impacts of congestion in B.C.’s Lower Mainland extend far beyond those living and working in the Metro Vancouver area. With an increasing amount of Canada’s trade destined for Asian-Pacific countries moving through the port of Vancouver, congestion in the Lower Mainland impacts the competitiveness of businesses that rely on the efficiency of Canada’s Asia-Pacific Gateway to export their goods.

Canadian Sailings talked with Dave Earle, President and CEO of the B.C. Trucking Association who says, “One of the things our members have identified are a lot of areas where we see congestion that are not necessarily significant truck routes. We’re seeing a complete shift in terms of how companies are operating in the Lower Mainland because of the terrible state of our infrastructure as it exists.” Earle goes on to tell us how two of his large corporate members are moving terminals from Richmond out to the Fraser Valley. “One has shut down and moved, the other is in the process of doing so. They just cannot function in the City of Vancouver proper. It’s not so much the congestion, it’s the fragility, it’s the unpredictability, one accident in one thoroughfare can throw the entire system into chaos because we’re so stressed. The unpredictability is what makes companies move.”

Mr. Earle adds that port drayage has been under five per cent of the trucking activity and even in the Lower Mainland it accounts for a small percentage of day to day activity. “It’s the general movement of goods, terminal to terminal and operator to shipper to receiver that really generates the activity.” He talks about courier operations, explaining that a few of his organization’s members have courier ventures, saying, “That would be something to watch as this emerges over time. I’ll be curious to see if this actually occurs due to the way the Province has approached this with its requirement for a Class 4 licence for rideshare drivers. It’s not as easy as it is in other jurisdictions.” Earle adds that he expects it to be an interesting experience to watch and to learn from. “Our streets are so congested now, that I’m not sure we’ll notice any significant change, and only time will tell.” Similarly, Mr. Earle says it’s too soon to tell if municipal and provincial governments have been genuinely interested in the public welfare as they have “studied” the problem and developed their rules and practices which seem at times to be merely obstructionist. “It’s too early to know,” he says, “Anything that changes and reduces congestion and reduces single-occupancy vehicles on the road is a good thing. Time will tell if ridesharing will do that.”

Continued growth on the horizon for Metro Vancouver

Data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest that the proportion of Canada’s workers who are engaged in part-time, temporary work or self-employment is around 30 per cent. Clearly, the sharing economy and gig work — both disrupters of traditional work structures and business models — are here to stay. There are new apps and services emerging regularly. Examples include companies like Curb, based in San Jose, which lets users schedule pickups ahead of time, or Wingz, based in San Francisco, which allows users to schedule rides to and from airports at flat fees and even to choose their preferred driver.

TransLink, formally South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority, is the statutory authority responsible for the regional transportation network of Metro Vancouver including public transport, major roads and bridges. As long as two years ago, the CEO of TransLink told a Vancouver Board of Trade meeting, “We have to find ways to embrace this change,” said Kevin Desmond, who noted that ridesharing services are hugely popular with the public and transit systems, “and we need to find a way to participate in that and make it complementary.” For this article, we spoke with Jonathan X. Coté, Chair of the Translink Mayor’s Council, who told us that TransLink did make submissions to the provincial government as it was reviewing regulations and policies for ridesharing. “Some of our recommendations to the Province were adopted, and some were not.”

“There’s no doubt that ridesharing could have an impact on commercial trucking,” he says. “Metro Vancouver is already a very built-out, congested region, and I think that anything that comes into play that further increases congestion not only will affect regular, daily traffic, but also commercial truck traffic as well. I think that the most valuable tool that could be used to help mitigate some of these challenges is to put in a flexible pricing structure that tries to encourage ridesharing where there is lots of demand and minimal impact on congestion. In more suburban communities we need to look at how we can help connect people to transit systems in off-peak hours – you don’t need any price signals there, but during rush hour with very congested road networks, maybe there has to be a pricing structure that discourages increased congestion. If we are taking people off public transit during commutes by encouraging them to use ridesharing services, that’s only going to have a negative impact on an already overburdened road system.”

Forecasts for continued population and economic growth in the Greater Vancouver area show increasing pressure on the region’s surface transportation systems, with growth of road and rail traffic expected to be particularly strong for commercial movements. Thus, increases in congestion will have a particularly negative impact on commercial enterprises.