Few companies have created quite as much controversy as Uber, the incredibly popular ride-hailing smartphone app that has operated in Montreal for the last year and a half.
Hailed for its convenience and easy interface, Uber hasn't been well met in Montreal, as you probably already know.
Taxi drivers have blocked bridges in protest of Uber. Municipal and provincial leaders have declared the service "illegal." The Taxi Bureau continues to impound the cars of Uber drivers. Constant debates are held on-and-offline about the merit of the company and its use.
And caught in the climate of anxiety and confusion that surrounds the "Uber War" in Montreal (as it's sometimes called) is you and me, the average citizens who use the app and traditional taxis, depending on the situation.
All too often I've had conversations with friends about the Uber debate, and the many questions that spring from it. Is the service actually illegal? Will we get fined if caught in an Uber? If there's an accident, do Uber rides provide insurance? Do the drivers get background checks?
No doubt one of the above (or similar) questions have popped into your head at one point.
But in Quebec, amid all the railing against Uber, we almost never get to hear what the company itself has to say. And, more importantly, users never get any form of relief from the questions that cause a fair amount of anxiety whenever calling a ride on the app.
Sitting down and speaking with the General Manager of Uber Montreal, Jean-Nicolas Guillemette, we decided to pull back the curtain on the at-times controversial company and get some answers straight from the source.
Because rather than just wondering whether or not Uber is illegal (or any of the other stuff thrown around about the service) here is everything you need to know about Uber in Montreal but didn't know to ask.
Uber In Montreal: Is It Illegal?
Quite honestly, if Uber was only used by a handful of Montrealers, we wouldn't really care if the service receives such harsh criticisms, nor would we feel the need to dispel some of the more alarming Uber-rumours.
But that isn't really the case.
Uber is incredibly popular in Montreal and the municipality's surrounding areas, regardless of how certain individuals view the company and its ride-hailing service.
Montrealers order a ride on Uber almost every 9 seconds, with nearly 300, 000 rides clocked in monthly. More than 20,000 Montrealers download the app every month, a number that only keeps growing. And in 2015 alone, Uber rides covered more than 7,190,174 kilometres in Montreal.
As the numbers show, Montrealers use Uber and UberX (the aspect of the app that employs rides from drivers that aren't taxis) almost constantly, mainly because it's a lot cheaper than standard taxi rides.
Still, that isn't to say the app has taken some sort of monopoly on travel in Montreal. A full 68% of UberX rides are only one way, meaning that another form of transport (taxi, bus, metro) is used a majority of the time for the trip back.
And yet, despite its immense popularity and the thousands of Montrealers that use Uber daily, we still haven't had the local or provincial government step in to regulate the service and ensure the safety of users.
The only thing we've really heard about Uber from Quebec's leaders is that the service is "illegal."
The short answer is no, because a municipal or governmental leader can't just make something illegal on a whim. Uber, however, is unregulated. But more on that later.
There are also a few questions users tend to have about riding in Uber's in general, so here's a quick rundown of topics just in case you were wondering:
- Pet Policy: Any service animal accompanied by a passenger (e.g. seeing eye dog) is always allowed in an Uber. The allowance of other pets is up to the discretion of the driver.
- Puking: There are horror stories about the amount people are fined for puking in a cab. You don't get off scot free in Ubers either, as you'll be charged with a cleaning bill (after accepting said charge) which usually clocks in at $50.
- Insurance Coverage: If in the unfortunate case you get into an accident during a ride, Uber does have insurance policies in place for all types of rides. Well, technically the SAAQ will cover you if you happen to experience any bodily harm, but Uber will step in to cover anything not included in the driver's insurance policy as well.
- Credit Cards: You actually don't need a credit card to use any of Uber's features. You do, however, need a PayPal profile connected to your bank account if you lack a credit card.
Who Are Uber Drivers, Really?
One of the biggest criticism used against Uber is the idea that their drivers are "anybody" and lack a proper background check. This is specifically in reference to UberX drivers, average citizens who use their own car to drive users around, not the regular taxis who happen to be connected to the network.
Either way, both statements are pretty much false.
Since opening its Montreal branch, Uber has always enacted in-depth background checks on its drivers. Uber background checks include criminal records (something Quebec only started doing December 2014), SAAQ records dating back to when the individual turned 18, and a vehicle inspection carried out by a mechanic in the city.
Even after the background check, Uber still keeps some serious tabs on its riders. The entire front part of the Uber Montreal office is dedicated to tracking drivers via GPS, and all drivers need to maintain a quality score of 4.5 and above. Any driver who dips below the 4.5 mark gets called in for feedback based on customer reviews.
It's worth noting that UberX drivers aren't really making a living off of the position, either. 75% of them only drive 20 hours a week, and 50% drive less than 10hrs/week. Mostly they're just getting some extra cash, though, in truth, that may justify the complaints of traditional taxi drivers all the more.
More interestingly, however, is the fact that about 14% of UberX drivers are women, a figure unseen in the taxi industry.
When asked to explain the stark difference between the amount of female taxi drivers vs. Uber drivers, Guillemette said it was simply a question of safety. Since Uber tracks every ride 24/7 and has information on both riders and drivers, women have felt more secure in the role.
Surge Pricing: What It Is And Why It's A Thing
After New Year's Eve, there was something of a media frenzy surrounding the "surge pricing" element of the Uber app. Having taken an Uber to get home on NYE, many Montrealers were angrily surprised at the high cost of their trip the next day, entirely due to Uber's "surge pricing."
Honestly, I'm not all that sympathetic to the folks who are now taking legal action against Uber for the pricy bills they got on NYE due to surge pricing. Why? Well, at all times, Uber makes you agree to the charge.
I've called Uber rides numerous times during "surge," and every single time, without fail, the app asks if you're okay with the listed price increase. You can always say no, or ask the app to tell you when surge is over.
Regardless, the user always needs to agree, so it's kind of on you if you want to spend more.
But why is surge pricing in place? Essentially, it's a supply and demand tool.
When there aren't enough drivers in an area to meet the demands of users calling rides, surge pricing is put in place as a means to bridge the gap. Drivers at home will get a notice telling them what zone in the city is surging, and the higher price acts as an incentive to get them on the road and help meet the increased demand.
An algorithm is used to determine what the increased fare will be, with the number of users and drivers being the main variables influencing the price.
Uber's Main Competitor: Not Who'd You Think
All too often have I had my ear filled with words against Uber when sitting in a Montreal taxi cab. To be fair, however, I've gotten a lot of crying complaints from UberX drivers about the Taxi Bureau, too. Both have fair points, except the two groups aren't really in competition with each other.
As mentioned, the Taxi Bureau is impounding the cars of UberX drivers at a surprisingly high rate. This has prompted many UberX drivers to ask passengers to ride in the front seat with them, something I've personally had to do several times.
Having to ride in the front to steer clear of the Taxi Bureau has made many believe passengers could get fined for taking an Uber. You really can't, but you can be incredibly inconvenienced if your ride is stopped short because the car is being impounded.
With all the animosity that seems to exist between UberX drivers and taxis, it was incredibly surprising to hear from Guillemette that the taxi industry isn't really a point of concern for Uber. In fact, the General Manager believes Uber and the taxi industry can help each other grow.
We've even seen this happen already. Take the new law that is now forcing all taxis to accept debit and credit payments, for example. If Uber wasn't around to create competition, it's pretty likely such a law wouldn't have passed so quickly.
But if not taxis, who is Uber's primary foe? The answer is more obvious than you'd think: people who just use their cars, and don't take Uber, taxis, or any other form of travel.
It makes sense if you think about it. If someone is taking their car to work, for example, they'll almost certainly just drive their car back no matter what happens.
On the other hand, if a person were to take a bus to work, and they need to stay late or the like, that's when they'll use something like Uber or a taxi to get back. So really, what Uber wants to do is just take more cars off the road.
In a city like Montreal, ranked as the worst city in Canada for traffic, having less cars on the road is only a good thing. Congestion issues would be ameliorated, the environment would benefit, and ultimately, people would take alternative modes of travel more frequently.
This would include Uber, along with the STM, carpooling, and yes, traditional taxis. So to Guillemette, the taxi industry actually stands to benefit from Uber being in the city and promoting a less car-centric way of life.
There's just one major hitch.
The Need For A New Regulatory Framework
The one thing that Uber Montreal wants is a new regulatory framework, a set of rules outlined by the provincial government that will regulate Uber as a formal service.
And it only makes sense. Uber is immensely popular, and if the government wanted to act in the best interest of citizens, they should ensure that everything Uber is doing is on the level.
Yes, Uber told me that they perform intense background checks, inspect every vehicle, and ensure the safety of riders. But it's the governments job that to make sure Uber is actually doing all that.
As it's the government's duty to act in the best interest of its citizens, creating a new system of regulation for Uber only makes sense.
Except, both the municipal and provincial government seem to be so intensely anti-Uber that they don't see that fact. Instead, government leaders are siding with what's ultimately an industry in the private sector, namely the taxi industry.
I do get it, though. Taxi drivers feel threatened they'll lose their primary source of income if Uber is formally regulated, an entirely justified fear.
But if Uber, the local/provincial government, and leaders of the taxi industry were to actually sit down and set out some new rules, everyone could stand to benefit.
Guillemette believes taxi drivers should have to pay less fees under a new regulatory framework, which could make the playing field more even, given that Uber covers most of the costs for its drivers.
A special tax could also be in place for all UberX rides, which could then be used to invest in Montreal's infrastructure, as has been done in other cities.
At the core of a new regulatory framework, however, citizens should come first.
And given the sheer number of Montrealers and Quebecers who use Uber, the leaders of the province aren't exactly doing their job if they ignore the issue of Uber and the implementation of some new rules altogether. For our sake, lets hope it doesn't stay that way.