Toronto’s Uber vote is about more than just ridesharing

Tuesday’s vote at Toronto city council on ridesharing isn’t simply about deciding how to regulate Uber and taxis.

Toronto’s Uber vote is about more than just ridesharing

Tuesday’s much-anticipated vote at Toronto city council on ridesharing isn’t simply about deciding how best to regulate Uber and taxis. It will tell us if Toronto sees itself as a modern, confident city that’s willing to adopt new technologies, new businesses and new ways of doing things, or a place where timid, stale politicians retreat in the face of special interest pressure and fear of change.

Uber is a compelling story. It has opened our eyes to an affordable, convenient and customer-friendly transportation option. In a very short time, Uber has empowered 15,000 people to earn much-needed income by opening their personal automobile to 500,000 individual riders in Toronto alone. They will be watching the vote very closely.

But Toronto’s decision regarding Uber goes well beyond that. It will be a preview of what is in store for the next sharing-economy apps that find themselves on council’s agenda. The core issue is whether we trust ourselves to make informed choices based not on what government tells us is good for us, but on what our friends, neighbours and perfect strangers have to say. It’s about whether public decision makers should view this phenomenon with suspicion, or as a kind of revolutionary change to make cities run better and helps solve problems that government has failed to solve on its own.

The deep database of actual travel patterns captured by Uber and other apps will be a boon for transportation planning if apps are seen as partners, rather than threats.

The convenience and efficiency of smartphone-based technologies have done wonders to immediately match people heading in the same direction — people who have never met one another — and get them to hop in a car together. UberPool and Canadian startups RideCo and BlancRide have done more in a year to get more people into a single vehicle than stern lectures by government to carpool have achieved over decades.

Groups such as Spinal Cord Injury Ontario and the Canadian Hearing Society have supported the idea of providing more choice, greater convenience and jobs for people with disabilities. Technology is the ultimate leveller. UberWAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles) has given people with disabilities the ability to order a ride on demand — just like everyone else — and affords them the dignity of riding in a vehicle that doesn’t have words on the side proclaiming that the passenger is disabled. And as many as 300 drivers in Toronto use Uber’s in-app features for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, giving them independence and the pride of being their own boss.

The reality is that Uber is the edge, not the end. It will be the first of many new technologies that captivates consumers, but initially confounds regulators and their filing cabinets of old rules.

Home-sharing app AirBnB is unlocking new city neighbourhoods for tourism and spending. Parking-sharing apps will reduce congestion and improve the environment by enabling drivers to search and book parking spots before they leave home or the office. Car-sharing services such as ZipCar and Turo propose the hitherto unimaginable notion of more affordable car ownership for urban residents with fewer cars on the road and less demand for new street parking.

Car2GO, the world’s largest car sharing service, contends that if Toronto city council were to allow its shared vehicles to use street parking, in order to be closer to its drivers — just like every other major North American and European city it serves — it could pull 15 cars off the road for every shared car on the streets. Even if it is five — isn’t it worth it?

Ontario is home to driven entrepreneurs starting up companies founded on exciting, ground breaking ideas held back by fossilized regulations. If Uber is sent packing, many Ontario-based entrepreneurs will start packing as well.

On Tuesday, we will see if Toronto residents will enjoy both the personal and public benefits afforded by the sharing economy. Let’s hope that Toronto’s Council — and, for that matter, the absentee Ontario government — follow Toronto Mayor John Tory’s lead to a more vibrant, prosperous path, a path that millions of people and dozens of large cities are already on.

Tim Hudak is an MPP for Niagara West—Glanbrook and the former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

View this article in the National Post.

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In October of 2015 I introduced a Private Member’s Bill to address the gray area in legislation surrounding some aspects of the sharing economy, including ridesharing, homesharing and parking sharing.

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