Would Uber Even Come Here?

Customer using the Uber mobile application. (Image: Mark Warner, via Flickr)

SAINT JOHN– International ride-hailing company Uber, which allows customers to order rides from their smartphone at cheaper rates than taxis, has been a topic of conversation in New Brunswick lately, with the news that the City of Saint John will be drafting a by-law which would allow such businesses to operate in the city.

Yet a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds is: Would Uber even want to come here?

It’s a fair question. Currently, neither Uber or its closest competitor, Lyft, operate anywhere in Atlantic Canada. They typically operate in larger city centres or communities that are close to those larger centres. Not to mention, a lot of cities in the region, like Saint John, currently don’t have laws that would even allow them to operate in the first place. In fact, Halifax, which is perhaps the first city in Atlantic Canada you’d think they’d go, voted two years ago against Uber from setting up shop.

Saint John city councilor Greg Norton, who put forward the motion to draft a by-law, says even if Uber or Lyft wouldn’t come here, it’s time for the city to open the door to such an opportunity.

“New technologies, the sharing economy and the benefits of ridesharing, they are hard to dispute,” says Norton. “I thought it was a more proactive approach to create a by-law that fits Saint John, rather than the industry ending up on our doorstep and then all of a sudden we’re scrambling.”

One of the big concerns cities have about Uber is their drivers get to bypass a lot of the laws and regulations placed upon traditional taxi drivers. A lot of the cities where they currently operate are trying to deal with regulation in that regard. Norton says creating a by-law would make companies like Uber play within the city’s guidelines, whatever they end up being.

“We have many people when we talk to them saying they would never come here because we don’t have the population or the demographics and we don’t have the economy to support it,” says Norton. “Yet we don’t have a by-law in place for them to even come knocking and investigate the possibilities.”

Though there are clearly a lot of barriers and obstacles, the idea that Uber would come to Saint John isn’t completely ridiculous. The first time Norton brought forward the motion a few years ago (and it was shot down by council), he says he was actually in conversations with Uber about what the city was trying to do. Those conversations ended when the motion didn’t go forward, he said.

When Huddle contacted Uber this week, a spokesperson said though they have no immediate plans to operate in Saint John, they are open to looking at the regulations the city puts in place.

“Uber continues to work with provincial and municipal governments across Canada on progressive rules for ridesharing that create safe and reliable transportation alternatives for local residents and flexible earning opportunities for our driver-partners,” they said. “While we have no immediate plans for Saint John, we look forward to reviewing any future staff report and proposal for ridesharing rules in the City.”

It’s not just legislation and population that Uber considers when it’s expanding to new cities. As journalist Leif Johnson explained in a piece for Motherboard about what it takes to “lure” Uber to a city, the company also looks at the reliability and affordability of existing transportation options. They want to know they are filling a need or gap in transportation offerings already there.

Leif also pointed out that Uber has been successfully operating in smaller university and seasonal tourism towns too. As an example, he cites the town of Taos, New Mexico, which has a population of just 5,731, and is located in deep in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

“Much like the college towns, though, Taos is a bastion of high culture with a thriving art scene that draws in tourists and other visitors year-round. And for its size, its Uber scene is hopping,” Leif writes. “When I checked Taos on my phone at 6:45 last night, three Uber cars were riding the local desert roads.”

With these insights and the fact Saint John also has a strong tourism industry from May well into the fall, the idea of Uber offering services in the city may not be as crazy as some think. But even if it is, Norton says Saint John having a bylaw in place could open up the door for a local entrepreneur to play in that space.

“Many conversations I have with folks is, ‘They will never come here.’ I say, ‘Of course they are not going to come here because we don’t even have an invitation for them to come here by way of a by-law,'” he says. “Let’s put the by-law in place and allow the industry to decide where they will expand. But as of right now, we can’t expect people to knock on a door that does not exist.”