Thursday, November 13, 2008

Canadian Nonsense, and it could happen here

"Canada Has Spent Billions On Carpool Lanes, But The Courts Are Now Forbidding Their Use By An Online Ridesharing Website." is the article headline that explains the situation well.

In Ontario there has been a long running lawsuit by a bus company against a ridesharing website for going against that province's definition of ridesharing/carpooling which was made back in the '70s. The court just ruled in favor of the bus company, and has given the ridesharing company fines and restrictions on its service.

So what is the right answer?

We demand that government establish safety and environmental standards that protect the people, as well as provide a level playing field for businesses to thrive. In this particular case, companies that transport people for a fee have safety, vehicle, insurance, and environmental standards they have to adhere to, all of which come at a cost which effects the price of the service to consumers. Yet individuals who share their own cars for a fee aren't required to comply with all those laws, and therefore can offer up a cheaper service. And theoretically, this leaves passengers at risk and the environment unprotected.

One likes to imagine that governments serve "the people" as a whole, and not particular interest groups. So where should they stand on this issue?

We typically give small businesses exceptions to all sorts of regulations because it just too much time and money involved for their small revenue stream and small volumes to comply. Michael Pollan has argued this same point in his book, An Omnivore's Dilemma when it comes to slaughterhouses (it is impossible to raise livestock on small local farms anymore because of these restrictions). For consumers, it is buyer beware when dealing with small local providers. And as Pollan points out, this is acceptable because we can know, see, and complain about the actual provider in a very direct way, that we can't do with big business. And therefore small businesses need to maintain high quality services if they want to remain in business.

From an environmental perspective, I really believe that we have to start enabling every resource to be used to its maximum capacity and efficiency. (See my personal blog entry on this.) Filling up cars that are making the trip anyway can only be a good thing. And if I had to predict the effect of this on bigger formal transportation services, I say that this can increase demand, not diminish it. As ridesharing becomes more popular, more people will feel that they can actually get to where they need to go without the need to own a personal car. Once you get rid of your personal car, your consumption of and reliance on public transportation in all its incarnations will rise dramatically.