Fear and loathing in Ottawa: Why the City fears Uber

Ever since I became an Uber driver here in Ottawa, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences. I’ve been able to set my own hours, meet new people and earn money while providing a service people clearly want. Uber customers love the services us drivers give them, including prompt arrival times and the fact Uber is cheaper than any taxi ride.

I’ve had government employees, local entrepreneurs, actors and students in my car, all uniformly thrilled about Uber. They rave about the service on Twitter, pass around free referral rides like candy and can’t imagine a time when Uber didn’t exist in Ottawa.

Make no mistake: a growing number of people in Ottawa are taking to Uber. This service is not going away. You cannot legislate technological progress out of existence.

In normal circumstances, this would be considered a successful business model, right?

Yet I, along with my fellow Ottawa-based Uber drivers, am under siege from the City of Ottawa. Ever since Uber debuted in Ottawa last fall, numerous Uber drivers have been slapped with tickets from undercover bylaw enforcement officers.

Thankfully, Uber has our backs. They are there for us and will wait out the City of Ottawa on these legal matters as long as they have to.

The City of Ottawa is playing a game of chicken with Uber. Local government, long in hand to the monopolistic taxi cab companies, knows it has a serious problem on its hands with Uber.

Yes, Uber is a technological and economically disruptive force. It’s a digital service that is crashing head-on with a local government that seems doggedly determined to stay rooted in an analog, pre-Internet mindset.

The irony of this situation is truly mindboggling. Ottawa has long-advertised its status as a digital-friendly community, with numerous software and Internet-based companies over the years taking up shop in the National Capital Region.

However, the City’s antagonism towards Uber reveals a lot more about the priorities of local government than any new policy towards garbage collection or OC Transpo fare hike ever could.

What the City is saying to Uber — and the taxpayers that use the service in Ottawa — is this: progress and the business spinoffs that come out of that progress is fine and good, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the status quo or in any possible way creates economic uncertainty.

If a new technology interferes in anyway with the entrenched interests and revenue streams that flow into City Hall, it’s ripe for attack. We ostensibly live in a capitalist society, but we drop this approach when it becomes suddenly inconvenient for bureaucrats?

Why are established corporate interests here in Ottawa allowed to use the law for competitive advantage?

The hypocrisy of the City of Ottawa on this matter is astounding to many of us. While governments tend to be very uneasy with change in general, the knee-jerk response by the City to throw the legal book at Uber drivers — instead of working with Uber to create a reasonable regulatory framework for Uber to exist in Ottawa — is infuriating.

All things being equal, many Uber drivers would love nothing more than to see the City come to a détente with Uber and set up some ground rules for how this will all work going forward.

Uber drivers also understand the fact the City remains dependent on the taxi cab companies for a lot of economic and political reasons. Nobody at Uber wants to kill off taxis, and there’s a compelling argument to be made that rideshares like Uber can co-exist with taxi services.

Still, let’s ignore the political and economic issues for a second. Let’s consider this, City of Ottawa: your citizens — the very people that fund local government, city councillor salaries and bureaucratic functions — want this service.

The City of Ottawa owes it to population to get beyond political squabbling and a culture of fear that is fueling this anti-Uber backlash at City Hall. The people are voting with their feet and wallets, and for many Uber drivers, our response to taxi cab companies’ complaints about the service is simple: build a better service.

Why not mandate that taxi cabs offer what Uber drivers do, like free water, smartphone chargers getting surly with customers that use payment options other than cash? Or ban taxi drivers from being able to make phone calls while driving customers around? Or why not get on with the process of reforming local laws about taxis to make Uber a “membership-based” club so that it doesn’t actually breach ordinances? There are plenty of creative ways to change the laws so that everyone can work together.

The point is this: the City of Ottawa is not acting in its citizens’ interests. It is protecting itself and its own entrenched interests first. Uber is popular for a reason — we’re providing a service people want. As an Uber driver, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I know the people are on my side.

When will the City of Ottawa see this reality too?