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 China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.