Ontario’s car pool embargo

Lawrence Solomon
FP Comment
November 22, 2008

With governmental blessings, you can car pool from home to work, but only under certain conditions.

Governments want us to maximize car pooling to take excess cars off the road, to save energy, and to clean up the environment, right?

Wrong, if the government is Ontario and provincial. In Ontario, car pooling is a prohibited activity that can only be allowed under strict government control, as determined by a government regulatory agency set up to oversee such conduct. Those who violate the law — as did a nonplused outfit called PickupPal — can and will be punished with the full force of the law. With the government’s blessings, you can share expenses by car pooling from home to work and back again, but only under certain conditions. You have crossed the line if you try to car pool to work across a municipal boundary — the government frowns upon suburbanites who commute this way. As for car pooling for a frivolous, non-work purpose — to school, to the hockey arena, to the doctor’s office — this is outlawed outright, regardless of whether you cross a municipal boundary.

Ontario places other restrictions, too, on car pooling. First, you must demonstrate dedication by sticking to the same driver, day in day out. You can’t catch a ride with Peter on Mondays if Paul picks you up Tuesdays. And you must never, ever be prompt in reimbursing your driver for your share of the ride. Once a week or once a month is fine. Try to pay more frequently and you’ll get pulled off to the side of the road if you get caught.

PickupPal, an Internet startup not yet one year old, is a phenom that already operates in over 100 countries, over 1000 lower-level jurisdictions such as states and provinces, and tens of thousands of municipalities. Only Ontario, through its Ontario Highway Transportation Board, has clamped down on it, an irony since PickupPal is based in Ontario. The transportation board — established by the government to protect local bus monopolies — last week fined PickupPal $11,000 and cost it $30,000 in legal fees after a chartered bus company filed a complaint.

PickupPal is now lobbying to have the government relax restrictions on car pooling and — given how ludicrous the current car pool rules are — it may well succeed. Yet PickupPal’s regulatory problems are unlikely to end, particularly if it continues to grow rapidly. Transportation monopolies exist throughout the world, most importantly in road services. If PickupPal — which makes it easy for passengers to find drivers willing to go from Point A to Point B — is allowed to operate without restriction, not only bus but also taxi monopolies would be doomed. This innovative start-up using geopositioning technology could soon be as threatening to the status quo as the automobile was to the horse and buggy.

The choice for governments would then be stark: To back tomorrow’s vibrant high-tech growth industries or yesterday’s outdated monopolies. Clearly, governments should decide on the former and will decide on the latter.

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