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Uber arrival might not improve safety but it's an opportunity for change

With the potential entrance of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, Winnipeg’s transportation options are set to change. It's time to make transportation options safe for marginalized groups, Katy MacKinnon writes.

Local Vehicles for Hire Act allows authorities to create regulations that keep passengers safe, columnist says

Uber isn't the solution to Winnipeg's taxi troubles, but the changes that will allow the ride-hailing app to operate here also present an opportunity to improve safety, columnist Katy MacKinnon says. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

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It's no secret that Winnipeg's safe transportation options for marginalized groups are limited. Frequent reports of sexual assaults and propositions make riding in a taxi a nerve-wracking experience. With the potential entrance of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, Winnipeg's transportation options are set to change. 

The Manitoba government introduced Bill 30, the Local Vehicles for Hire Act, last week. The bill gives municipalities responsibility for the regulation of vehicles for hire. Should the bill pass, the Manitoba Taxicab Board will be dissolved and municipalities will be given the power to create bylaws for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.

Though ride-hailing in Winnipeg will combat the lack of available taxis on Friday and Saturday nights, it might not make a difference in the safety of passengers.

Winnipeg taxis are notoriously an unsafe environment for marginalized populations. 

Reports of inappropriate behaviour from Winnipeg taxi drivers made headlines in 2016: A driver allegedly sexually assaulted a transgender man and offered him money to drop his complaint; an Indigenous woman was allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted after taking a cab; and a young woman reported refusing a proposition by a cab driver, only to be propositioned again by a passenger of a second cab waiting in front of her house.

Those are just the public accounts. 

Reports of sexual assaults on Indigenous women became so numerous in November 2016 that a group representing 30 Manitoba chiefs declared the issue a "public safety concern." 

Racism and rude behaviour toward Indigenous women taking cabs prompted Jackie Traverse to start the Facebook group Ikwe (women helping women safe ride). The group is a volunteer-run service offering safe rides for women, by women.

Ride-hailing pros and cons

An immediate feedback system is non-existent for Winnipeg's current taxi service. Compliments and complaints are handled with a form that must be emailed, mailed or faxed.

The ride-hailing model uses a simpler system. Uber drivers and passengers can rate one another directly in the app after the ride ends. Drivers can't see individual ratings from passengers; instead, driver ratings are calculated based on an average of the 500 most recent trips.

Uber says this feedback is reviewed on a regular basis in order to support "a safe and respectful environment for riders and drivers."  

It would appear the immediate rating system for both drivers and passengers would lead to increased safety using ride-hailing services. A 2015 analysis by CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank, supports this idea, saying the removal of anonymity and cash transactions "remove[s] major incentives for violent assaults."

But a closer look at Uber's regulations and track record tells another story. Though passengers and drivers may be named, passengers cannot request specific drivers for a trip, and passengers who cancel trips after a driver has already been matched may be subject to a cancellation fee. If a passenger is paired with a driver with a low rating and the passenger wishes to cancel the trip due to safety concerns, there may be a penalty. 

The website Who's Driving You? compiles worldwide news reports of deaths, assaults, sexual assaults and further infractions involving Uber and Lyft. So far, the site has linked to more than 200 sexual assault complaints. 

Furthermore, former employees of Uber have complained of a culture of workplace sexism and sexual harassment, prompting an internal investigation; the results are expected to be made public.  

Route forward

Though the entrance of ride-hailing in Winnipeg may increase our taxi-to-city-resident ratio, Winnipeg should take this opportunity to implement regulations that advocate for the safety of marginalized populations. 

Changes that could increase safety of all vehicles-for-hire might include:

  • Mandatory training for drivers on respectful communication with passengers.
  • An easy-to-use immediate feedback system.
  • Full, L-shaped safety shields attached to the driver's seat.
  • Mandatory security cameras.
  • Sensitivity training that informs drivers about the specific issues facing Winnipeg's diverse communities, including the Indigenous, queer, disabled and immigrant communities. 

As we open our transportation market, it is imperative that we take preventative action to ensure the safety of residents. Taxi services should not be labelled a public safety concern; they should be a safe transportation option that residents can use with the implicit understanding that their bodies will be respected.

Winnipeg has a long way to go.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Katy MacKinnon

Katy MacKinnon is a queer, non-binary freelance writer in Winnipeg. Their work has appeared in CBC Manitoba, Maclean's, Daily Xtra and, before its closure, Outwords magazine.