Government says it will take the 'lightest touch' possible to regulating Uber
Traditional taxi companies will be hoping the Government comes down harshly on controversial app company Uber when it sets new rules for the industry later this year.
But the Government is already signalling that won't be the case. Ride-sharing innovations, such as Uber, are being touted as the next big revolution on our roads, paving the way for a future in which many of us will no longer need to bother owning a car at all.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges has heard the talk and knows New Zealand needs to keep pace with the technology.
He met the high-powered executive behind Uber last week while attending the International Transport Forum summit in Germany. Bridges also saw first-hand the revolution taking place elsewhere in the world, where ride-sharing apps are exploding in popularity.
Uber, which was founded in San Francisco in 2009, appeared in Auckland in May 2014 then popped up in Wellington a few months later, operating as a private hire company that connects drivers with passengers via a smartphone app.
In January, the Government announced it would review the rules governing the taxi industry to make sure they were fit for purpose in the wake of Uber's arrival.
The results of that review are due later this year. But Bridges signalled that the Government would be taking the "lightest touch" possible to regulation so ridesharing technology can flourish.
"I've always thought that in politics you're on the side of the angels if what you're doing is good for consumers, and ultimately this will be," he said.
"What I want to see is a regime that allows for new technological innovations, but is safe. Some change is required, but we're open to where that goes."
Uber now has more than 1000 drivers in Auckland and Wellington, and has plans to expand into Christchurch and Queenstown.
Its services vary across the 58 countries it operates in, but the core concept is that it allows everyday people to make money by driving others around in their own cars.
Uber drivers here need a similar level of certification to taxi drivers, including a Passenger Endorsement and Passenger Service Licence. But unlike traditional taxis, its cars are not required to be fitted with in-vehicle security cameras.
Uber recently called for the licensing regime here to be released and for the Government to cut down the "10 weeks plus" it takes to gain those certifications, which it says is a barrier to attracting more Uber drivers.
Bridges stressed the Government's review was not an "Uber review" aimed at helping the company out. But he was excited about the potential impact companies like Uber could have on the transport landscape if allowed to expand their operation to encourage a large-scale uptake in carpooling.
"It's an incredibly interesting area," Bridges said."I've talked to quite a few people here at the International Transport Forum about that, and their view, which I think has some power, is that we are going to see not just Mr Jones getting in a passenger vehicle with a driver, but Mr Jones, Mrs Smith and Mrs Kumar."
David Plouffe, senior vice-president of policy and strategy at Uber, was part of a panel discussion at the summit, where he talked about Uber's ultimate goal of getting cars off the road by providing a service that was equally as convenient as having a car parked in your driveway.
For that to work, Uber needed enough drivers so that passengers anywhere in a city could be reached within two or three minutes.
"So people can say, it's really no different than going out into my driveway and turning on the ignition of a car," Plouffe said.
"I press a button on my smartphone and that car will be there to take me to my job, the airport, to see my kids, to go shopping."
Uber recently began offering a service in Paris, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco that allowed multiple people to share a ride a split the cost. It proved popular, Plouffe said, to the point where about 20 per cent of Uber trips in San Francisco are now shared trips.
Bridges said the potential economic, social and environmental benefits of such a step-change in transport here could potentially be quite significant.
"But I don't need to be convinced about whether it's going to be revolutionary or just pretty good," he said. "What I am convinced about is that we should accommodate the innovations in this area, because they give more choice and they will be better for consumers."
UNLOCKING YOUR CAR'S POTENTIAL
Cars are one of the most underutilised assets on the planet, according to Plouffe, who points to research that shows they are used for less than 50 minutes a day on average.
Meanwhile, the world is experiencing a trend in urbanisation that has never been seen before.
"At the beginning of the last decade, only one in seven people lived in cities. Right now, we're looking at closer to one in two, and by the middle of this decade it will be two in three," he said.
"The trends are irrefutable: people are moving to cities. Young people, by and large, want to live in cities and there are many cities that have very little ability to cope with what that means.
"They don't have the ability to build whole new public transportation systems. They don't even have the ability to build more roadways."
New Zealand's Ministry of Transport predicts congestion will remain relatively stable over the next decade. But with Auckland's population expected to grow to more than two million in the next 20 to 30 years, the ministry has warned its roading network is likely to come under increased pressure, with congestion spreading throughout the working day.
The signs are also pointing towards a younger generation of Kiwis choosing to spurn cars.
New Zealand Transport Agency figures show that, a decade ago, 1,099,685 people aged between 17 and 25 had some form of driver's licence. By 2009 that number had dropped to 494,628 and, by the end of last year, it had reduced to 483,902.
Plouffe said Uber's core "mission" was to provide more mobility options for everyone.
"If you look at cities all over the world, it is taking too much time to get around … and that's only going to explode.
"As more people move into cities, we've got to get less of them driving their own vehicles. That is the only way to bend the curve."
Ride-sharing technology is also changing lives for the better by providing a cheaper service, and in some cases, making taxi services accessible to those who previously could not afford them.
In late 2014, Consumer NZ put Uber to the test against taxis in Wellington and found it to be a much more affordable option.
A return trip from the CBD to the airport cost $55 with Uber ($27 to the airport and $28 return) while – even in light mid-morning traffic – Green Cabs cost $80 ($36.80 to the airport and $43.20 return) and Wellington Combined cost $83.50 ($37.10 to the airport and $46.40 return).
THE GREAT UBER DEBATE
But ride-sharing services are not without their critics.
Uber has faced a tough time establishing itself in almost every country it has ventured into, with some countries choosing to ban its cheaper services that connect passengers to drivers without commercial licenses.
The company has also faced criticism across the world over the way it pays drivers, charges passengers and ensures their safety.
Uber has been taken to court in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
Taxi drivers in cities across America, Europe, Canada and Mexico have also taken to the streets to protest what they say is unfair standards for Uber, which does not pay the same operational fees or insurance costs as traditional taxi services.
Umberto de Pretto, secretary-general for the International Road Transport Union, which represents transport companies across the world, told the International Transport Forum last week that taxi licensing regulations needed to be respected.
They were in place for a reason: primarily to ensure the safety of passengers. "The rules are put in place to protect the consumer, they're not there just for fun ... If you have an app, and this app claims it will bring you to a professional, then you want to know the person behind that app is a professional."
Back home, Callum Brown, director of Wellington-based Green Cabs, questioned why Uber felt it needed to lobby the Government to relax regulations rather than simply comply with the rules that had been put in place to ensure the safety of everyone using a taxi.
He pointed out that Green Cabs had managed to incorporate the same app technology Uber uses into its own business while remaining compliant with national rules and regulations.
"It raises the question of why it is so difficult for a corporation with pockets as deep as Uber's to be able to do the same," he said.
"It is a simple case of why bother complying when you can instead buy influence to tilt the playing field in your favour."
Plouffe argued that Uber's GPS tracking and customer rating systems gave passengers more control than ever when it came to weeding out the bad drivers from the good.
"If someone is driving through four red lights, that would be registered [on GPS]; if someone is acting inappropriately in a car, then that would get registered [by passengers]," he said.
"There's power there for drivers too because the driver also rates the rider, and they will get booted off the platform. So there's complete transparency."