Uber’s arrival in Taiwan in 2013 sparked massive protests by taxi unions and professional drivers. The demonstrators demanded that the Investment Commission revoke Uber Taiwan’s investment license on grounds that the company engaged in “unfair competition.”
Policy commentary has thus far focused on fairness issues, internal market regulations, taxation and consumer protection, but has yet to broaden the discussion to evaluate Uber’s potential environmental effects and their implications for sustainable transport systems.
Are Uber and other similar transportation network companies (TNCs) — eg, Lyft and SideCar — climate friends or foes? This is an increasingly critical question as the services proliferate globally, but the answer is still unclear at this moment.
The ride-sharing platforms, unsurprisingly, insist on their positive effects on the environment. The companies claim that passengers are helping lower the carbon footprint left by the modern “driving alone” transportation model and reducing the desire for personal car ownership.
However, a recent study by London’s Department of Transport suggested the rise of ride-sharing apps, such as Uber, has played a part in worsening traffic congestion. In the past few years, the number of private-hire cars has increased by 26 percent, because some people use ride-sharing services to take trips that they would not have taken otherwise.
The transportation situation varies by city and nation. To formulate robust policy solutions, Taiwan first needs to collect data and carry out independent assessments on TNCs mobility, emissions and environmental effects within its own territory.
In terms of legal action and regulatory responses, Uber is involved in at least 173 lawsuits around the world. In October last year, the Court of Justice of the EU was requested by a Spanish judge to issue a preliminary ruling to declare Uber’s legal status either as a transportation company or a digital platform provider.
Given past litigious experiences, government authorities face two options. The first is to simply ban the market entry of Uber and other similar TNCs. This choice might deprive people of collaborative consumption benefits and trigger legal disputes. The second option is to allow Uber to compete at the same level with local taxi companies and harness the sharing services’ pro-environmental potential for promoting a more sustainable transportation system.
Regulatory reform processes from early-acting jurisdictions, such as the US states of California and Colorado and the city of Seattle, have offered insightful lessons. For example, California has set a minimum fuel-efficiency standard and model, engine and year restrictions on vehicles eligible for Uber drivers. The California regulators also require all TNCs to submit reports detailing their drivers, routes, passengers, payments and the services provided within each ZIP code.
These additional low-carbon requirements and compulsory reporting standards can be useful to balance the interests of public safety, environmental protection and flexibility for innovation in the transport sector.
Technological changes bring both challenges and opportunities. Transport policy should be politically and publicly acceptable. Besides the operation of the Investment Commission, Taiwan might need a cross-agency policy
making integration, especially between transport and environmental authorities, and take this chance to convene public consultations on the regulatory environment for app-based platforms and collaborative economy.
Yang Chung-han is a doctoral candidate researching international environmental law at the University of Cambridge in England.
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