In 2017, a study from researchers at UC Davis found that between 2014 and 2016, Uber and Lyft were responsible for a six percent decrease in the use of buses across the United States, along with a three percent decrease in the use of light rail. A paper produced by Uber and Lyft themselves last year reported that drivers for the services accounted for as much 14 percent of the total miles driven in city centers, which was more than double one previous estimate.
These facts are broadly true across North America, except in Vancouver, which for years has resisted rideshare services because of strong political resistance from the local taxi industry, and foot-dragging government officials. While other cities, most famously Austin, Texas, were able to ban Uber and Lyft for at least months or a year at a time, Vancouver kept Uber and Lyft out for nearly the entire 2010s. There’s no other major city like it on the continent. But last September, the British Columbia provincial government finally decided to finally open up applications for “transportation network companies,” the term that most public officials use to refer to firms like Uber and Lyft. As of this week, Vancouverites can now use their phones to call up a ride.
Took my first Vancouver @Uber trip today. Guy told me I was his first ever passenger, I replied that he was my first ever driver. :)— Marius Adomnica (@MariusAdomnica) January 24, 2020
Thought twice about posting the pic below because I look like I had about 20 beers the night before but oh well. #Uberpic.twitter.com/PfLAMNLNZT
Just took an #Uber from work to Starbucks in #Vancouver, and got an alert on the app saying I'm the first person in the history of the city to use the service. Thank you @Uber for the $50 credit for being number 1, and all the best in BC. Glad to have made history with you!— Patrick McClorey (@patrickmcclorey) January 24, 2020
For people, like me, who’ve wondered for a few years what life might look like without Lyft or Uber in a familiar-looking major metro area, Vancouver has offered a real-life counterfactual. And by and large, the region has done quite well until now. Translink, the regions transit agency, last year said that mass transit usage — including buses, city light rail, and commuter rail — increased by 7.1 percent from the previous year, the largest-ever single-year increase. This makes sense, as Vancouver’s mass transit system is widely touted as the best in North America. New York City, by way of comparison, is in the middle of its worst period of subway ridership decline since the late 1980s, as the system has become progressively less reliable. This has threatened to produce a vicious cycle in New York, where riders switching to ride-hailing from subways are starving the system of revenue needed to at least maintain its current (bad) quality.
Uber and Lyft don’t represent the majority of the cars on the road anywhere by any stretch, and their impact on road congestion or public transit usage is dwarfed by the effect of private cars, Todd Litman, who operates the Victoria Transit Policy Institute in the Vancouver area, told me. “But if we allow ride hailing without putting in place decongestion strategies there’s going to be increased traffic and other problems,” Litman said.
To wit, Vancouver authorities are trying something fairly novel. Whereas New York City only introduced congestion pricing last year — charging a fee to drivers in certain parts of Manhattan to disincentivize the use of cars on city streets, which will take effect in 2021 — Vancouver has instituted a similar (if less stringent) policy right off the bat, a plan to charge 30 cents for every time Uber or Lyft pick up and drop off passengers in downtown Vancouver or adjacent neighborhoods. Although ride-hailing apps have primarily been kept out of Vancouver thanks to a politically effective taxi lobby, government officials are promising that this slow-and-steady approach can mitigate the kind of problems that other cities have experienced. “We’ve had the benefit of learning from other mistakes,” a TransLink official told CityLab in October.
Vancouver officials have some reason for confidence, as the numbers do show that its mass transit system is thriving. But the reintroduction of Uber and Lyft coincides with a tremendous spike in regional inequality, as Vancouver is now also top-ranked in its housing unaffordability. As cities like Vancouver and New York have attracted large, successful companies and reputations as well-liked cosmopolitan hubs, the jobs created in turn by those firms do not yield an equitable kind of growth. In Silicon Valley, the model region of this new kind of economic arrangement, income has decreased in the last two decades for all but the highest-earning 10 percent.
Vancouver is, by all accounts, a terrific and special place to live (there's a reason Meghan Markle and Prince Harry want to live there), but even by cautiously allowing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate it may be giving up some of what makes it a special and great place, in return importing a whole new set of problems that come with its rising inequality. For a more local perspective, I asked Stefan Heck, a Twitch streamer and internet funnyman who lives in Vancouver, about whether he thinks it’s worth the trade. He wasn’t optimistic.
“I've been fine without [Uber or Lyft], our transit system is pretty robust and easy to use and I take the train or the bus pretty much every day without any issue,” Heck said. “The biggest thing people complain about is that the lineup for taxis at the airport is too long, but again, the train to downtown takes about 25 minutes, and the wait for a taxi is still way shorter than waiting for rideshare at, say, LAX.”
After all, Heck says, “if you're able to do it, just take transit! It's better for the city and for the environment!" Regardless, it seems things may be off to a rocky start:
We finally have Uber in Vancouver and it’s fucking more expensive than cabs holy fuck— // (@colescrase) January 24, 2020