How an Alberta firm created a ride-sharing company to fill the Uber void

The Edmonton company poised to become Winnipeg's first new vehicle-for-hire company was founded by conservative Alberta lawyers who worked with disenfranchised cab drivers to create a labour-friendly ride-hailing service.

Ride-hailing firm started as a business relationship between lawyers, cab drivers and a labour union

TappCar started in Edmonton in 2016. (CBC)

The Edmonton company poised to become Winnipeg's first new vehicle-for-hire company was founded by conservative Alberta lawyers who worked with disenfranchised cab drivers to create a labour-friendly ride-hailing service.

After spending several days advertising for Winnipeg drivers, TappCar confirmed Tuesday it intends to operate in the Manitoba capital on March 2, pending regulatory approval by the Winnipeg Parking Authority.​

The company started picking up passengers in Edmonton in 2016 at a time when Uber, the largest global player in the ride-hailing industry, temporarily ceased operating in the Alberta capital.

"We waited for Uber to enter the market and it didn't happen. They didn't fit the mold," said Jonathan Wescott, an Edmonton corporate lawyer who co-founded TappCar with tax lawyer and former Wild Rose Party MLA Shayne Saskiw, in a telephone interview from Edmonton.

Wescott and Saskiw run Alberta Counsel, an Edmonton lobbying and legal services firm. In 2015, they were about to take on a client with an interest in operating in Alberta when they started lobbying on behalf of cab drivers who did not own their own taxi licences.

As a client of cab drivers, Wescott's firm lobbied the City of Edmonton while it was creating a new vehicle-for-hire bylaw to govern companies such as Uber, which operated in some cities without working with transportation regulators or insurance providers.

"We worked with individual drivers, not brokers or owners. They wanted to own their own businesses," he said.

Outside of comfort zone

Wescott says those working relationships led him and Saskiw to consider working outside their comfort zone in a field unrelated to law or lobbying.

"We thought, 'What if we represented the drivers in a way they hadn't been represented in Canada before?'" he recalled. 

"It seemed like a necessary piece of the equation. This is not our regular forté. I'm a business lawyer by trade. Shayne's a tax lawyer. But we felt we'd be letting the drivers down if we didn't try."

One of the first moves they made was to take the Teamsters on as a client and invite the union to organize drivers and ensure they all had access to benefits and safe working conditions.

Wescott said the move was met with skepticism from both political friends and foes.

"It's exactly the opposite of what anyone expected. We're talking about notable conservatives working with the union," he said. "Everyone thought this was an NDP-based company."

TappCar drivers who work full-time hours have health benefits and contribute to a voluntary pension plan. The company is also installing video-surveillance camera systems in some vehicles, says Pascal Ryffel, a former Alberta NDP staff member who works for Alberta Counsel and speaks on behalf of TappCar.

The company's labour-friendly image has not insulated it from complaints from cab companies or Edmonton city council, both of whom complained in 2016 that TappCar drivers were picking up rides off the street. 

Edmonton's vehicle-for-hire bylaw prevents companies such as TappCar from picking up passengers who hail them on the street. Winnipeg's new vehicle-for-hire bylaw has a similar provision.

Wescott says he is aware of only two formal complaints filed against TappCar drivers since the firm began operating in 2016. He said he is not aware of any assaults against the company's drivers, but said a passenger pulled a gun on one driver "very recently."

We want to be good partners to the city.- TappCar spokesman Pascal Ryffel

The lawyer said the company fell victim to credit-card fraud early in its existence, but has since climbed the learning curve that comes with operating within a new industry. The company also had a presence in Calgary, which Ryffel described as a tricky market for the firm.

Teamsters Local 987 spokesperson David Froelich says TappCar is trying to re-establish itself in Calgary.

Ryffel says he believes the Alberta company will be a good fit for Winnipeg. 

"I think people appreciate having a Canadian option to choose and a company that puts a little bit more emphasis on the workers and the drivers, so I think that hopefully we can establish a really good relationship with Winnipeggers and you know, just go from there," he told reporters outside city hall,.

"Right from the get-go, we've said we wouldn't break any rules, we wouldn't operate unless it's within the bounds of the law and we have done that right from Day 1 and we plan on doing that here. We want to be good partners to the city."

Ryffel says he believes TappCar has yet to turn a profit, and Wescott has declined to discuss the finances of the privately operated company.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman welcomed TappCar to Winnipeg, but still expressed hope Uber would follow suit.

Both Uber and Lyft have balked at Manitoba Public Insurance's insistence on insuring individual vehicle-for-hire drivers. TappCar is happy to work under this insurance regime, Ryffel said.

As of Tuesday, the Winnipeg Parking Authority had yet to process any applications for vehicle-for-hire dispatch companies, Winnipeg communications director Felicia Wiltshire said. 

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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