PickupPal and unhappy bus companies

2008-11-19

in Canada, Economics, Law, The environment, Travel

Is a web-based service that helps those with spare seats hook up with those willing to pay for rides “facilitating the operation of an illegal transportation service?” The Ontario Highway Transport Board has decided that it is, in a case brought against PickupPal by unhappy operators of bus lines.

While I can see how liability issues arise in relation to safety, it doesn’t seem appropriate for the board to fine and try to shut down this service. As someone who travels frequently by Greyhound, I know that bus service in Canada could stand some competition-driven improvement. This sort of decentralized commerce seems like a pretty good way to reduce the environmental impacts of inter-city travel. After all, having a passenger or two travelling along with you does more for your passenger-kilometres per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted than buying a more efficient vehicle probably would.

While I can see the reason for the bus companies’ grievance – after all, they need to pay a fair bit to comply with commercial transport laws – on balance their complaint seems anti-competitive and likely to be environmentally harmful.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan November 19, 2008 at 8:10 am

Allowing un-regulated bus services means guys like the shady person Meaghan and I got a ride with from Ottawa to Toronto. He drives from Hamilton to Ottawa and back, every single day. His van isn’t really made for the work, and the suspension was overloaded (sitting down on the bumpstops). He will eventually probably kill 5 or 6 people when he falls asleep at the wheel.

The market can not regulate itself in this situation.

J. November 19, 2008 at 8:32 am

Maybe PickupPal isn’t the best way to do things, but I agree that Greyhound could use a little more competition. Being from Toronto and traveling back and forth from Ottawa, it costs about $140/round trip for an adult. $80/student. It gets pretty pricey. The train is becoming competive, the last time I took it Ottawa – Toronto, I think it’s only $150/round trip in comfort class.

Milan November 19, 2008 at 10:44 am

I wonder what the insurance implications of this are. If you accept money from strangers for a ride, then get into an accident, does your automobile insurance cover your passengers, or are you personally liable?

The market can not regulate itself in this situation.

How is this different from ride-sharing websites, except insofar as it is more efficient to have rides listed in one place rather than several? Should all ride-sharing websites be treated similarly by the courts?

Regarding transport between Ottawa and Toronto, you can get Greyhound tickets for about $95 round-trip if you book two weeks in advance – significantly cheaper than the train. I have heard that there are other bus companies with cheaper tickets (such as Megabus), but I have never used them.

Sarah November 19, 2008 at 2:02 pm

My concern would be that it may affect ride-sharing websites. What is the supposed distinction? Is it about whether you pay for the service? That would seem daft to me, given that splitting the fuel cost is generally considered reasonable for passengers going any distance in someone else’s car.

Tristan November 19, 2008 at 10:30 pm

“How is this different from ride-sharing websites, except insofar as it is more efficient to have rides listed in one place rather than several? Should all ride-sharing websites be treated similarly by the courts?”

The difference isn’t in the website, the difference is in the service. In both cases (craigslist and this website), the website becomes an enabler for people to run illegal business.

There is a meaningful difference between offering someone a ride to a place you were already going and charging a fee, and running an illegal transit company where you make trips for the sole purpose of procuring payment from strangers who sook out your services for transport.

Milan November 19, 2008 at 11:16 pm

By the time you pay, you have seen the driver and the vehicle.

Why does caveat emptor not apply here?

Tristan November 20, 2008 at 1:21 am

That isn’t true. Partially because you pay at the end of the journey, but it’s not as if you can choose to pay or not to pay. More meaningfully, it’s because you are not a safety inspector, and when we say “I checked out the vehicle” and “I had the vehicle checked out”, we do not say the same thing.

I don’t even think hard core libertarians would argue we shouldn’t have any requisite safety inspections for bus companies.

Milan November 20, 2008 at 9:13 am

I don’t even think hard core libertarians would argue we shouldn’t have any requisite safety inspections for bus companies.

I think that is actually exactly the sort of thing they do argue. They may be wrong in thinking the market will generate an adequate ratio between safety and price, but I think they would support an approach not based on government intervention.

I also don’t think equating bus companies to individuals giving rides makes sense. If you do find yourself presented with a dodgy van, you can call of the ride before it begins. More likely, you will find yourself meeting an ordinary inter-city commuter looking for someone to split the cost of gas with.

Milan November 20, 2008 at 10:17 am

At least one libertarian – John Stossel – thinks the United States should get rid of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA):

We need to rethink the premise that government inspections keep us safe.

Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandall of the Brookings Institution write: “(T)he fundamental problem with most regulation is that the regulatory agency does not have sufficient information, flexibility and immunity from political pressure to regulate firms’ behavior effectively. Fortunately, the market, and in some cases the liability system, provide sufficient incentives for firms to behave in a socially beneficial manner.”

Libertarianism doesn’t work if we are actually too constrained in our choices (or the knowledge on which they are based) to choose a private company with good internal safety procedures over one that lacks them.

Sarah November 20, 2008 at 1:54 pm

“The difference isn’t in the website, the difference is in the service…There is a meaningful difference between offering someone a ride to a place you were already going and charging a fee, and running an illegal transit company where you make trips for the sole purpose of procuring payment from strangers…”

This is not the sort of distinction the law is equipped to make – it can’t, for instance, know whether you have another purpose for travelling to the location nor will it competently distinguish a ‘contribution to gas costs’ from a ‘travel fare’. Notoriously, these sort of difficulties lead to arguments over whether someone is possessing or dealing drugs, because collecting a friend’s pot for them cannot be distinguished in the law from drug dealing (even though the difference might be clear to the participants and many observers).
Given this, the options are effectively to criminalise ride-sharing and illicit buses or to make both options legal; any other solution is likely to result in a lot of confusion, inconsistency and in ride-sharers being criminalised under a law that was not designed to apply to them.

Tristan November 21, 2008 at 7:52 am

“I also don’t think equating bus companies to individuals giving rides makes sense. ”
-Milan

“More meaningfully, it’s because you are not a safety inspector, and when we say “I checked out the vehicle” and “I had the vehicle checked out”, we do not say the same thing.”
-Tristan

“This is not the sort of distinction the law is equipped to make ”
-Sarah

Make a better law. We do in fact distinguish between posessing and dealing drugs. We judge people’s purposes all the time. Sure there are hard cases, but the van driver from hamilton to ottawa, daily, is not a hard case – he is very obviously operating a business illegally.

I don’t mean to say in this that I agree that the websites should be taken down or banned. Rather, this kind of website is ripe for allowing illegal businesses to start up, so we just need real enforcement to keep this from happening. There are many ways to do this – such as a renumerated system for people to report illegal bus company operators.

There is no need to criminalize ride-sharing, because what is criminal is already criminal – running an illegal bus company.

“If you do find yourself presented with a dodgy van”

How will you know the van is dodgy? You are not a vehicle inspector, and even if you were, you don’t have the means to examine the van. Do you have the requisite skills to recognize when brake discs are worn out? To judge whether tires are out of alignment? To judge when suspension components or wheel bearings need replacing? Not everything “worn out” in a car makes it rattle and shake like an old bus. Also, if you have planned in advance to use a rideshare, there is quite a bit of pressure to go through with the ride because you probably do not have a simple alternative. So, even if you do think the ride is a bit sketchy, there is a good reason you’ll go anyway.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Previous post:

Next post: