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Uber political football thrown to Fassbender

The Uber smartphone app can hail rides in dozens of cities around the world, but not yet in B.C. - Jeff Nagel / Black Press
The Uber smartphone app can hail rides in dozens of cities around the world, but not yet in B.C.
— image credit: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

Premier Christy Clark has dispatched Community Minister Peter Fassbender to consult local municipalities and other stakeholders on how the province should respond to ride-hailing services like Uber.

The move comes after Transportation Minister Todd Stone last week suggested Uber's arrival is inevitable but then said no policy changes are imminent.

"Peter Fassbender is now beginning consultations, really getting down at a granular level to people's thoughts about it and see if we can put it together," Clark said Monday.

The premier said opinions are divided among civic leaders and others about what to do.

"We're giving it a lot of thought right now," she said. "Vancouver city council has voted against allowing Uber in Vancouver. We've heard different voices in Surrey talking about yes and no. We certainly know there is a vast diversity of interests."

RELATED: Uber's arrival in B.C. is inevitable: Stone

The BC Liberal candidate in the Coquitlam by-election is campaigning to allow a modernized sharing economy, which Clark noted goes beyond transport services like Uber and Lyft.

"It's about Airbnb, making sure we protect consumers, making sure that we increase availability," Clark said. "All of that sharing economy is catching up with us and it needs to be regulated."

Fassbender, who is also the minister responsible for TransLink, could not be reached for comment.

Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains said Stone's supportive stance on Uber – in contrast to his stern tone a year ago – has sent shock waves through the South Asian community and could hurt the BC Liberals politically in areas where numerous taxi drivers fear for their livelihood.

"It leaves a huge sense of uncertainty and insecurity for thousands of families who mortgaged their homes to buy these jobs as taxi drivers," Bains said of Stone's comments. "With a stroke of a pen, if he's not careful, he could bankrupt those families."

Bains said new technology should be welcomed but the province must create a level playing field that doesn't favour one giant firm like Uber over others.

The taxi industry and some individual companies have developed their own smartphone apps that aim to deliver similar advantages, such as detecting location by GPS and displaying the proximity of the hailed taxi.

"They're improving and I think they should be given the opportunity to improve so passenger safety isn't jeopardized and thousands of families aren't bankrupted," Bains said.

The province has said Uber would have to get Passenger Transportation Branch approval and overcome other hurdles, such as insurance requirements.

Bains said the ride-hailing service should have to meet the same requirements as taxis, including background and criminal record checks and regular vehicle inspections.

He denied the NDP has sided with the taxi industry.

"We are trying to protect the integrity of the system the government has put in place."

Bains also accused Stone of sending different messages when discussing Uber with South Asian and mainstream media outlets, and of hosting "secret meetings" with Uber reps.

Uber's two registered lobbyists in B.C. are former staffers of the premier's.

"They have a direct line to the premier's office," Bains charged, adding that's "very very worrisome to the taxi industry."

More than 20 B.C. tech business leaders last week wrote an open lettter calling on the province to take the necessary steps to open B.C. to ride-sharing services.

So far Surrey city council has taken no position of support on behalf of either Uber or the incumbent taxi industry.

Some other councils, including Langley Township, have urged the province to enable Uber under a regulated model.

– with files from Tom Fletcher

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