Uber comes to Halifax

But what will it mean if the car service app company decides to expand here?

Published in the November 2014 issue of Halifax Magazine.

Right now Uber is only offering its black car service in Halifax. (Matt Galligan/Flickr Creative Commons)

Right now Uber is only offering its black car service in Halifax. (Matt Galligan/Flickr Creative Commons)

In June, San Francisco app company Uber began offering one of its car services in Halifax, and although Uber reps are staying tight-lipped about how successful they’ve been here so far—let alone how many Uber drivers are on the streets—expansion appears to be on the table. If you’re a driver looking for more income or a passenger looking for more convenient ways to get around the city, that’s probably a good thing. But if expansion includes introducing its controversial taxi-like services, it could be a problem for cab drivers and the municipality.

Right now in Halifax, Uber is only offering its UberBlack option, which connects app users with licensed limousine drivers behind the wheels of high-end sedans. Like most of the company’s other services, users can see nearby cars on a map and each driver’s customer rating before selecting a ride. The best part for passengers and drivers: no digging for change; the ride is paid for with a credit card via the app. The worst part: UberBlack’s high-end prices; minimum fare is $12 to go anywhere on the peninsula.

That could change if Uber’s cheaper options, such as UberX, come to town, which Uber Canada’s General Manager of Expansion Jeff Weshler doesn’t deny as a possibility. “We’re always looking to go for what consumers are looking for,” he says.

This would be an issue for the municipality, however, because drivers would need taxi licenses, and the HRM has no more to hand out. “We have given out our maximum number of cab licenses [1,000],” says Brendan Elliott, a senior communications advisor with the HRM. “We currently have a waiting list of 300 people who want cab licenses, so Uber drivers would have to get in line and wait with the rest if they wanted to get into the cab business in Halifax.”

Dave Buffet, president of the Halifax Taxi Drivers’ Association agrees that it would be a concern, saying that one reason regulation matters is because it ensures quality control. “If, for example, you have a ride with a cab driver and he took the long route or whatever, you can easily complain about the service by noting the roof plate number. So the advantage of having a taxi license and having a system is that if you’re not adhering to bylaws, you can be disciplined.”

Local regulations haven’t necessarily stopped Uber, however, which has a valuation of over $18 billion and is now in over 200 cities around the world. Its general mode of operandi has been to operate first, ask permission later. After Uber launched in Berlin and Hamburg this year, for example, courts banned two of the company’s services—UberBlack and UberPop—ruling that they didn’t comply with licensing rules. Closer to home, Uber is facing 35 bylaw infractions in Toronto after setting up in 2012 without a brokerage license.

To be fair, nothing about Uber’s approach in Halifax has concerned city officials so far. “They are using already-licensed limousine drivers,” says Elliott, “so from our perspective, everything that we’ve seen and heard from them and on the streets is that they’ve done nothing to raise any red flags for us.”

And according to Weshler, the city shouldn’t be worried. “We look to foster really strong working relationships with cities, and I think we’ve been able to do that to date with the HRM. To us, it’s a matter of working collaboratively to drive innovation and new ways of doing things that couldn’t have been imagined.”

Time will tell if that collaborative approach holds, but whether you’re an Uber fan or not, one thing is clear: this is a company to watch.

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