How Taiwan is inoculating itself against the Uber “virus”

Uber in Taipei in happier times. To be specific, 2015. Image: Getty.

The ongoing clashes over Uber, the controversial ride-sharing app, are a constant reminder of how badly governments are being outpaced by innovation. None of them seems able to achieve the difficult feat of standing up to big, disruptive companies but also harnessing the benefits their technology brings.

In the UK last autumn, the courts did part of that job, ruling that Uber drivers are not self-employed and that the company may have to ensure they get the minimum wage, holiday pay and other entitlements. That ruling is no substitute for a thorough, democratic, consultative process, one that allows the will of the public to be ascertained and brought to bear on the likes of Uber – but then that kind of process can itself seem slow, cumbersome, easily outpaced.

It needn’t be like that, though. Democracy can be nimble – and powerful. Last year Taiwan passed a law that represents a capitulation by Uber to the full force of public consensus, as established through a radically open, democratic online process – “the cyberpunk frontier of democracy”, some have labelled it. Though it’s by no means perfect, Taiwan’s law is an inspiration to anyone wondering how democracy can be reborn in the age of the multinational corporation and the tech disrupter.

Uber’s arrival in Taiwan in 2013 played out in the usual way: the service was hugely popular, taking custom off traditional taxi drivers – but often because it cut corners. Uber drivers didn’t have to have insurance or professional driver’s licences, their charges undercut the fare structure set down in law, and the company wasn’t paying the same taxes as local firms.

Into this conflict stepped the organisation g0v, a network of civic-minded hackers who since 2012 have been opening up Taiwan’s government to public scrutiny. They’ve built "shadow" government websites (with .g0v URLs) to make data radically more accessible, helped draft crowdsourced legislation, and inspired a TV show – beamed into virtual reality headsets – where ministers respond directly to citizens’ ideas.

The g0v team were also a leading force in the 2014 "Sunflower Movement" that saw protestors occupy the Taiwanese parliament and hundreds of thousands gather against a controversial free trade deal with China. So this is not an online movement divorced from the material world: the two “need to work together,” says g0v member Audrey Tang, who was recently appointed Taiwan’s digital minister.

When it came to Uber, g0v teamed up with officials last year, in an online process called vTaiwan, to find out what the public wanted done. But they didn’t just send out a consultation document or start up a Facebook group. Instead, they used a new tool called Pol.is that groups like-minded people together and then allows them to suggest and refine proposals to be voted on.

This four-week process – involving 4,500 people, including users and drivers of both Uber and traditional taxis – worked because it nudged people towards consensus. More extreme statements – such as, "the government should do nothing about Uber" – were rejected, and contributors were encouraged to put up more nuanced ideas. Eventually this yielded seven recommendations that were each backed by over four-fifths of contributors.


Tang then facilitated a meeting in August last year with Uber and government officials – but instead of taking place behind closed doors, as such meetings normally do, it was livestreamed, and live-transcribed, with over 1,800 people watching. Faced with such clear public pressure, and knowing there was a real consensus behind the demands, Uber “caved in” on almost all of them, Tang says. 

The company promised its drivers would get insurance and professional driver’s licences, stop undercutting standard fare structures, and submit ride data to the Taiwanese authorities. Other changes, aimed at making it easier for civil society to start up its own Uber variants, were also agreed. These points have all been incorporated in the new law.

The one big demand that Uber didn’t give way on, Tang has acknowledged, was that it pay a fair amount of tax. “If they commit to being a taxable entity in Taiwan, then the drivers become their employees, and they are fighting a very important legal battle [against that] in California. So if they agree to this last point in Taiwan, the Californian judge [would] use it against them.”

Does the failure to change Uber’s tax stance – perhaps the biggest problem that the company poses to lawmakers worldwide – invalidate the process? “Personally, I held no preconceptions going into the facilitation process, so any agreement is... progress,” Tang says.

The Uber issue could still be settled the hard way. Alongside the "good cop" vTaiwan process, the government is also playing bad cop, threatening to ban Uber for not paying enough tax and fining its drivers millions of pounds for operating illegally. Taxi drivers who weren’t part of the vTaiwan process – because Uber hadn’t hit their cities then – continue to organise traffic-blocking protests. Taiwanese courts have also been after the company.

But vTaiwan showed that the public wants to regulate Uber, not ban it. And that process remains a demonstration of “crowd-sourced agenda-setting power”, Tang says. “I see Uber as an epidemic of the mind. You don’t negotiate with a virus. All you can do is inoculate people – by deliberation, thinking deeply together to develop your immunity to their PR agenda. When you think about something very deeply together, you’re immune.”

And it’s not just Uber that’s having to play ball. Last year g0v ran a similar process with Airbnb, another disruptive company that the government had threatened to ban. Again, the results were striking: every one of the online-generated, consensus-backed recommendations was accepted.

Airbnb owners now have to operate on a level playing field with hotel owners, registering their businesses, installing safety equipment and buying insurance, and, crucially, paying full taxes. And the company itself is having to take notice. When Uber was under the spotlight, Tang says, “their lawyer was there, and their PR person from Asia, and the local CEOs... We used them to set an example. The next time, when we did Airbnb, the co-founder flew in."

 
 
 
 

How bad is the air pollution on the average subway network?

The New York Subway. Image: Getty.

Four more major Indian cities will soon have their own metro lines, the country’s government has announced. On the other side of the Himalayas, Shanghai is building its 14th subway line, set to open in 2020, adding 38.5 km and 32 stations to the world’s largest subway network. And New Yorkers can finally enjoy their Second Avenue Subway line after waiting for almost 100 years for it to arrive.

In Europe alone, commuters in more than 60 cities use rail subways. Internationally, more than 120m people commute by them every day. We count around 4.8m riders per day in London, 5.3m in Paris, 6.8m in Tokyo, 9.7m in Moscow and 10m in Beijing.

Subways are vital for commuting in crowded cities, something that will become more and more important over time – according to a United Nations 2014 report, half of the world’s population is now urban. They can also play a part in reducing outdoor air pollution in large metropolises by helping to reduce motor-vehicle use.

Large amounts of breathable particles (particulate matter, or PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced in part by industrial emissions and road traffic, are responsible for shortening the lifespans of city dwellers. Public transportation systems such as subways have thus seemed like a solution to reduce air pollution in the urban environment.

But what is the air like that we breathe underground, on the rail platforms and inside trains?

Mixed air quality

Over the last decade, several pioneering studies have monitored subway air quality across a range of cities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The database is incomplete, but is growing and is already valuable.

Subway, Tokyo, 2016. Image: Mildiou/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, comparing air quality on subway, bus, tram and walking journeys from the same origin to the same destination in Barcelona, revealed that subway air had higher levels of air pollution than in trams or walking in the street, but slightly lower than those in buses. Similar lower values for subway environments compared to other public transport modes have been demonstrated by studies in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul and Santiago de Chile.

Of wheels and brakes

Such differences have been attributed to different wheel materials and braking mechanisms, as well as to variations in ventilation and air conditioning systems, but may also relate to differences in measurement campaign protocols and choice of sampling sites.

Second Avenue Subway in the making, New York, 2013. Image: MTA Capital Construction/Rehema Trimiew/Wikimedia Commons.

Key factors influencing subway air pollution will include station depth, date of construction, type of ventilation (natural/air conditioning), types of brakes (electromagnetic or conventional brake pads) and wheels (rubber or steel) used on the trains, train frequency and more recently the presence or absence of platform screen-door systems.

In particular, much subway particulate matter is sourced from moving train parts such as wheels and brake pads, as well as from the steel rails and power-supply materials, making the particles dominantly iron-containing.


To date, there is no clear epidemiological indication of abnormal health effects on underground workers and commuters. New York subway workers have been exposed to such air without significant observed impacts on their health, and no increased risk of lung cancer was found among subway train drivers in the Stockholm subway system.

But a note of caution is struck by the observations of scholars who found that employees working on the platforms of Stockholm underground, where PM concentrations were greatest, tended to have higher levels of risk markers for cardiovascular disease than ticket sellers and train drivers.

The dominantly ferrous particles are mixed with particles from a range of other sources, including rock ballast from the track, biological aerosols (such as bacteria and viruses), and air from the outdoors, and driven through the tunnel system on turbulent air currents generated by the trains themselves and ventilation systems.

Comparing platforms

The most extensive measurement programme on subway platforms to date has been carried out in the Barcelona subway system, where 30 stations with differing designs were studied under the frame of IMPROVE LIFE project with additional support from the AXA Research Fund.

It reveals substantial variations in particle-matter concentrations. The stations with just a single tunnel with one rail track separated from the platform by glass barrier systems showed on average half the concentration of such particles in comparison with conventional stations, which have no barrier between the platform and tracks. The use of air-conditioning has been shown to produce lower particle-matter concentrations inside carriages.

In trains where it is possible to open the windows, such as in Athens, concentrations can be shown generally to increase inside the train when passing through tunnels and more specifically when the train enters the tunnel at high speed.

According to their construction material, you may breath different kind of particles on various platforms worldwide. Image: London Tube/Wikimedia Commons.

Monitoring stations

Although there are no existing legal controls on air quality in the subway environment, research should be moving towards realistic methods of mitigating particle pollution. Our experience in the Barcelona subway system, with its considerable range of different station designs and operating ventilation systems, is that each platform has its own specific atmospheric micro environment.

To design solutions, one will need to take into account local conditions of each station. Only then can researchers assess the influences of pollution generated from moving train parts.

The ConversationSuch research is still growing and will increase as subway operating companies are now more aware about how cleaner air leads directly to better health for city commuters.

Fulvio Amato is a tenured scientist at the Spanish National Research CouncilTeresa Moreno is a tenured scientist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA), Spanish Scientific Research Council CSIC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.