1. Transport
June 26, 2017updated 03 Aug 2023 2:35pm

A Canadian town is paying Uber to give its citizens lifts because it can't be bothered to sort out a bus route

By Jack May

Uber is the gig economy’s very own Marmite.

For some, no salacious news item nor shocking anecdotal tale can shake their allegiance to its teasing ease-of-use, basement bargain prices, and door-to-door comfort. For those of us on the moral high ground, meanwhile, its ruthless, scientifically engineered manipulation of its exploited workers is sickening; the reports of its medieval, misogynist office culture are beyond belief; and the way it would leech us off public transport into vehicles clogging the streets with dangerously overworked drivers is disturbing.

So, yeah. Uber is a bit like Marmite.

But even its most ardent fans are out-paced by one town in Canada, which has taken its Uber addiction to the next level. Innisfil, a small town near Toronto, has hired Uber as an alternative to developing a public transport network of its own.

Fun-looking place, isn’t it? Image: P199.

In a trial programme, the town put aside around £60,000 to subsidise Uber rides for the town’s 36,000 locals instead of forking out what it claimed would be hundreds of thousands to set up bus routes.

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The scheme works as follows. Providing your journey confirms to certain limits (set locations and so forth), your ride in an Innisfil-sponsored Uber car will cost you a fixed rate of between £1.79 and £2.98; the town then steps in and pays the difference between that set rate and what the ride would actually have cost at full fare. If your journey goes beyond these limits, you pay whatever the total comes to, minus a standardised discount of £2.98 from the town on whatever your journey ends up costing.

Surprisingly, the plan does actually make allowances for those who don’t use smartphones, or credit and debit cards. You can send a simple SMS text message instead of using the app. Theoretically, you’ll be able to pay in cash soon too, if the town’s authorities can knock their heads together in a convincing way to come up with a solution to that particular thorny issue.

Understandably, local taxi firms are decidedly unimpressed. But the city has promised to refund levies it charges to local companies to cover the first year of the Uber scheme.

A nicely car-ridden road into Innisfil. Image: Michael Gil.

It has also legislated to allow these local taxi firms to charge lower fares so that they can be competitive with Uber – though how you can truly, genuinely compete against a state-sponsored monopoly is, I have to admit, beyond me.

One advantage, though, is that the plan doesn’t seem like it’ll end up being permanent.

Once the £60,000 pilot fund is burnt through, data collected throughout the scheme will be analysed in detail to see if a strategically designed bus route could be devised to sort out the key arteries across the town where demand is at its highest. If such a public transit system is not possible, the scheme will be reconsidered – and potentially even put out to tender – to ensure the thing is properly thought-through before becoming a permanent feature of Innisfil life.

It’s also not the first time Uber has got caught up in such schemes – but it is noteworthy that this is the first such scheme that has acted as a total replacement for public transit, rather than as a supplement to plug gaps in an existing transport network.

The success of Innisfil’s scheme – and whether the idea of doing something so barmy is taken up by other similarly transit-bereft towns – will be an important watershed in the roaring fight about the so-called gig economy. The question is clear: do we really accept that the ‘new economy’ is basically the same as the old economy, but using smartphones, low wages, and stripping workers of any of their most useful and fundamental labour rights?

If Innisfil’s scheme works, and is continued and copied – the sad answer is yes. Those decidedly un-lovely people in Uber HQ will slowly take over our public transport networks, and total hegemony will be achieved.

Let’s hope not, eh?  

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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