Uber’s Canadian public policy manager can’t say when the ride-sharing service will be up and running in Winnipeg, but Chris Schafer is calm and confident it’s on its way.

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Uber’s Canadian public policy manager can’t say when the ride-sharing service will be up and running in Winnipeg, but Chris Schafer is calm and confident it’s on its way.

"Winnipeg and Manitoba is no different than any other jurisdiction," said Schafer, who was in Winnipeg Wednesday for a series of discussions. "It starts with conversations with civic stakeholders, municipal and provincial politicians and bureaucrats to let them know what Uber is and what the value proposition is."

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce hosted Schafer for a public forum for chamber members via a live Periscope session.

The ride-sharing service now operates in several cities across Canada including Edmonton, the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa as well as several other cities in southern Ontario.

It currently has 16,000 driver partners in Ontario, more than 50 per cent of whom drive less than 10 hours per week.

The Silicon Valley-based, privately owned company operates in about 320 cities in more than 60 countries around the world.

"The idea is to be everywhere," Schafer said of Uber. "You turn on the tap and like running water, it is there."

Even though a Probe Research survey earlier this year indicated 60 per cent of Winnipeggers are in favour of the ride-sharing service coming to Winnipeg, the disruptive and controversial company also has an organized opposition.

Duffy’s Taxi and Unicity Taxi recently formed the Winnipeg Taxi Alliance to generate public awareness about the good work of the existing taxi service and to point out the negative influence Uber can have on the communities in which it operates.

Luc Lewandoski, spokesman for the Alliance, said its main issue is there be a level playing field.

"What we do not want to see is the case where one set of people — the traditional taxicab sector — is forced to abide by and comply with Manitoba laws while government looks the other way," he said.

That is not the case right now, even though Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Drew Caldwell, the provincial minister responsible for the Manitoba Taxicab Board, agree ride-sharing companies such as Uber do seem to offer a service that people really want.

"I’ve long been a champion for increased innovation, new technologies and crowd-sourcing, but let’s also be clear the Taxicab Board is responsible for regulating the taxi industry," Bowman said. "Anything that does happen on that file has to be good for everyone involved. There is an existing industry, there are existing taxi cab operators, there are users who want as good service as possible. I trust the taxicab board will look at everyone involved in this important discussion."

The Manitoba Taxicab Board is fully engaged in the issue.

It has planned the first review of the commercial people-moving industry in the province in more than 50 years that will include ride-sharing services. A request for proposals for the review is out right now, and Caldwell said it is expected to be undertaken this fall and winter.

"The issue of ride-sharing has been one of international interest over the last couple of years and there are different responses in different jurisdictions, some quite draconian on both directions," Caldwell said. "I want to get it right for Manitoba that respects all the stakeholders in the industry."

But until then, Caldwell said, "The laws of the land apply."

That means a host of licences and regulatory sanctions are required from the Taxicab Board to get into the business.

Uber Canada's Public Policy Manager Chris Schafer at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce office Wednesday morning.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Uber Canada's Public Policy Manager Chris Schafer at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce office Wednesday morning.

According to Schafer, that is not a problem. He said there is public demand for the service, and the momentum powered by the ever-growing digital economy is on their side.

"The conversation I am having when I meet with politicians is... this is happening. Technology is changing the way we live, work, play and travel. That is a reality. Nothing will change that dynamic," he said. "We can’t put the genie back in the bottle."

Even Lewandoski and his clients do not disagree with that.

Both Unicity and Duffy’s have recently launched mobile apps of their own. Duffy’s reports it’s receiving about 15 per cent of its calls via the app.

Lewandoski said development work is underway toward rolling out some services the Uber app now features.

But until then, Uber has a clear head start with an enticing array of services all operated from a mobile app.

Among other things, it links riders with drivers who are five minutes away or less. Schafer said the estimated time of arrival for cars in Toronto is now three minutes, and the service is always trying to get faster.

"In theory you should push the button and the car is there," he said.

When the app is downloaded, users must include their credit card information, so payment is automatic and a receipt is emailed instantly.

When a ride is requested, information including the fare, the name of the driver, the make and model of the car and the distance away are all available on the rider’s mobile device.

Schafer said Uber rates are between 30 and 50 per cent less than taxi fares in the markets it currently operates. It does increase fares in particularly busy times and districts, but in those situations the drivers get a larger share of the take and riders have less wait time.

The $50-billion company has seemingly unlimited resources to deploy to build the business and wait out jurisdictions that try to keep Uber out.

Not surprisingly, Winnipeg taxi drivers are not happy about the potential arrival of such a disruptive competitive force.

Nadeem Arain, a Unicity Taxi driver who drove Schafer downtown from the airport Wednesday morning, said Winnipeg does not need Uber.

"There is already good service in Winnipeg," Arain said. "Every winter there are 100 extra taxis in the city."

— with files from Aldo Santin

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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