Reevely: Smart proposals on Uber and Airbnb from … Tim Hudak?

Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Tim Hudak. Frank Gunn / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario should legalize ride-sharing, house-sharing and parking-sharing services with a set of provincewide standards that sweep away city-by-city fights over companies like Uber, says former Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

The ex-boss of the provincial Tories is still the MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook and he’s got a private member’s bill in the legislature to follow through with his ideas. If we need to legalize Uber and Airbnb and Rover (a lesser-known service that allows you to rent out an unused parking spot you keep an eye on), Hudak’s got some sensible ways to go about it.

It comes down to letting people do what they want with their own property whilst making sure customers get the basic protections they’d expect.

“The sharing economy gives Ontarians some keep an eye on over their income and budget, by allowing them to earn as much or as little as they want the usage of resources they already own,” as Hudak put it Tuesday.

The “sharing economy” is a bit of a euphemism, evoking as it does barnraising bees and hand-me-down clothes. Lots of money changes hands and billion-dollar companies get a share of it. But whatever it’s called, it’s been done for many years — it’s just that modern smartphones and apps supercharge the connections between sellers and buyers. It’s here to stay and we’ve been very, very slow to keep watch over any part of it. Hudak would change that.

Want to start driving for pay through a service like Uber? Before signing you up, the company would have to get a criminal-background check and a clean driving abstract, and proof of proper insurance. Customers would be entitled to clear fare calculations in advance and identification of the drivers coming to pick them up. Drivers and Uber, or the Uber-like service, would both be legally responsible for making sure the standards are met.

(The insurance requirement is the big one. Commercial driving insurance is a lot more expensive than private auto insurance and it’s entirely likely that one major reason why Uber is so regularly much cheaper than traditional cabs is that drivers are skimping. We haven’t yet seen a crash in which an insurance company has refused to cover an injured passenger, but if that happens it’ll be volcanic.)

To rent out your home would be simpler: You could do it for up to 120 days of the year without a licence, full stop. So you couldn’t be in the hotel business whilst pretending not to be, but you could take an extended vacation and make some money on your home whilst you were away.

Renting a parking spot — year-round, if you wanted — would be just as easy, though cities would have some things to say about the potential of residential properties’ being turned into commercial parking lots by stealth. That’s already a problem in some neighbourhoods despite the fact that it’s against the law; we’d probably want some restrictions to keep landowners from paving their yards to squeeze in more cars for a few extra bucks.

The truth is, the hard part isn’t devising sensible regulations. It’s disentangling the government from existing moneyed interests. It takes guts to screw over entrenched industries that have benefitted from market-limiting regulatory regimes.

Since he’s now a minor figure in an opposition party, Hudak doesn’t have to worry all that much about practicalities like the thousands of angry cabbies who’d all but lose their investments in taxi plates across Ontario. That’s a problem. We can either buy our way out of it or blow it away, but it pretty much has to be one or the other.

A right-wing government might take on unionized cabbies aggrieved by Uber and a left-wing one might take on the hoteliers aggrieved by Airbnb, but finding one government willing to have both fights wouldn’t be easy. The fact many of these businesses are mostly regulated by municipalities complicates things even more: They’ll all get a hold of different ways of adapting and it’ll be a mess.

The legislature can stop it.

If Hudak had had ideas like these a couple of years ago, he might have been premier. Now, he’s hoping his bill passes a second reading on Thursday and gets sent for committee hearings. That would be a good and useful thing.

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