British Columbia

Is Uber the Apple of transportation?

To traditional transportation industries in Vancouver, Uber is one giant wrench hurled at its gears.

High-tech "disruptor" changes the game, but not without problems

An Uber user opens up the smartphone app (Michelle Eliot, CBC )

To traditional transportation, Uber is one giant wrench hurled at its gears.

The ride-share app company, exiled from Vancouver in 2012 due to requirements by the BC Passenger Transportation Branch, wants to return.

But as is the case in other cities it operates, Uber is running into roadblocks from regulators and other stakeholders like taxi companies. The insurance industry is the latest to warn potential Uber drivers and users.

A disruptor, but at what cost?

Karen Quinn Fung, an advocate of sustainable transportation, is excited about Uber's potential to disrupt tradition and reshape transportation.

But if all anybody talks about are lower prices and convenience, she's worried that may run roughshod over complex broader questions like consumer rights and labour concerns for would-be drivers.

"Who's benefiting from it, and who isn't?" says Fung, a board member with Vancouver Public Space Network.

"Those are the kinds of considerations I don't think we're thinking about, if we're just thinking to ourselves how much we like it, and how much we're willing to pay for it."

Sustainable transportation advocate Karen Quinn Fung says Uber comes with the potential to reshape transportation, but it also comes with broader concerns for society. (Michelle Eliot, CBC News)

Regulation versus innovation

"I think regulation is important to protect the consumer, but not at the expense of, right off the bat, killing innovation" argues Vancouver's Harry Yeh, a frequent user when travelling on business.

Yeh, who manages a hedge fund that deals with bitcoin, compares Uber to other so-called disruptors battling it out in heavily-regulated industries like bitcoin and accommodations website airbnb.
And Yeh points to another company that has changed the game for all other players—Apple.

"Look at Apple. Before the desktop computer, everybody thought, who would need a desktop computer? Then Microsoft came, and then everybody has as desktop computer" says Yeh, who tweets at @harryyeh. "Fast forward 10 years later, everybody's like why do I need a desktop computer? I just need a smartphone."

Could Uber revolutionize transportation in the same way?  Not without dust ups in the road along the way. 

In San Fransisco, Uber's home base, the company faces legal action along with other ride-share providers.  Regulators accuse Uber, Lyft and Sidecar of violating California business laws.


Michelle Eliot is the host of BC Today on CBC Radio One.