A Canadian town is paying Uber to give its citizens lifts because it can't be bothered to sort out a bus route

This is Uber, but you probably knew that already, you metropolitan elitist lizard, you. Image: Freestocks.org

Uber is the gig economy’s very own Marmite.

For some, no salacious news item nor shocking anecdotal tale can shake their allegiance to its teasing ease-of-use, basement bargain prices, and door-to-door comfort. For those of us on the moral high ground, meanwhile, its ruthless, scientifically engineered manipulation of its exploited workers is sickening; the reports of its medieval, misogynist office culture are beyond belief; and the way it would leech us off public transport into vehicles clogging the streets with dangerously overworked drivers is disturbing.

So, yeah. Uber is a bit like Marmite.

But even its most ardent fans are out-paced by one town in Canada, which has taken its Uber addiction to the next level. Innisfil, a small town near Toronto, has hired Uber as an alternative to developing a public transport network of its own.

Fun-looking place, isn't it? Image: P199.

In a trial programme, the town put aside around £60,000 to subsidise Uber rides for the town’s 36,000 locals instead of forking out what it claimed would be hundreds of thousands to set up bus routes.

The scheme works as follows. Providing your journey confirms to certain limits (set locations and so forth), your ride in an Innisfil-sponsored Uber car will cost you a fixed rate of between £1.79 and £2.98; the town then steps in and pays the difference between that set rate and what the ride would actually have cost at full fare. If your journey goes beyond these limits, you pay whatever the total comes to, minus a standardised discount of £2.98 from the town on whatever your journey ends up costing.

Surprisingly, the plan does actually make allowances for those who don’t use smartphones, or credit and debit cards. You can send a simple SMS text message instead of using the app. Theoretically, you’ll be able to pay in cash soon too, if the town’s authorities can knock their heads together in a convincing way to come up with a solution to that particular thorny issue.

Understandably, local taxi firms are decidedly unimpressed. But the city has promised to refund levies it charges to local companies to cover the first year of the Uber scheme.

A nicely car-ridden road into Innisfil. Image: Michael Gil.

It has also legislated to allow these local taxi firms to charge lower fares so that they can be competitive with Uber – though how you can truly, genuinely compete against a state-sponsored monopoly is, I have to admit, beyond me.

One advantage, though, is that the plan doesn’t seem like it’ll end up being permanent.

Once the £60,000 pilot fund is burnt through, data collected throughout the scheme will be analysed in detail to see if a strategically designed bus route could be devised to sort out the key arteries across the town where demand is at its highest. If such a public transit system is not possible, the scheme will be reconsidered – and potentially even put out to tender – to ensure the thing is properly thought-through before becoming a permanent feature of Innisfil life.

It’s also not the first time Uber has got caught up in such schemes – but it is noteworthy that this is the first such scheme that has acted as a total replacement for public transit, rather than as a supplement to plug gaps in an existing transport network.

The success of Innisfil’s scheme – and whether the idea of doing something so barmy is taken up by other similarly transit-bereft towns – will be an important watershed in the roaring fight about the so-called gig economy. The question is clear: do we really accept that the ‘new economy’ is basically the same as the old economy, but using smartphones, low wages, and stripping workers of any of their most useful and fundamental labour rights?

If Innisfil’s scheme works, and is continued and copied – the sad answer is yes. Those decidedly un-lovely people in Uber HQ will slowly take over our public transport networks, and total hegemony will be achieved.

Let’s hope not, eh?  

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.