Opinion | Uber Canada executive Andrew Macdonald on fixing freight, going green — and his most-ordered meal deliveries

Shortly after Uber launched in Canada in 2012, Andrew Macdonald, senior vice-president of Uber’s mobility and business operations, remembers checking out the app’s traffic. On one of the app’s first Friday nights, it had just six cars on the road. Fast-forward a decade and Uber drivers have clocked approximately 5.5 billion kilometers in Canada alone — enough to circle the Earth approximately 137,243 times.

Uber is now, hands down, the most-used ride-hailing app in Canada, if not the world. Around 17 million Canadians have either taken a ride or ordered food through the app. Undeniably, Uber takes its Canadian operations seriously — but as with elsewhere in the world, the ride-hailing app hasn’t always endeared itself to labor activists, local politicians and Uber drivers themselves.

Macdonald spoke to the Star about Uber’s recent agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers over working conditions, the company’s plans to go carbon-neutral in major Canadian cities by 2030, and why he’s resisted moving to San Francisco for the company:

Uber just raised its forecast for earnings to between $130 million and $150 million US Are you expecting any of this earnings growth to come from business in Canada?

We’re seeing a pretty good signal across our big businesses — delivery and mobility — all around the world. The exciting scenario, from my perspective, that is playing out is twofold.

One is that, as the world opens up again and Omicron recedes — as it is in much of the world — people are eager to get moving again. They’re starting to go back to the office. They’re socializing, going to bars and restaurants, going to sporting events and starting to travel. We’re seeing international travel up. We’re seeing business travel up. We expect it to be a really robust summer travel season — as I think most airline CEOs are saying as well. There’s so much pent-up demand. And that’s certainly true in Canada. I was at the Leaf game on Saturday night. We’re back to full capacity. What does that mean? Every restaurant in the building was full. People are taking Ubers there, taking Ubers home, they’re going out after.

On the other side of our business, what’s interesting is that the pandemic has permanently changed people’s habits as it relates to delivery. Everyone picked up this habit of getting food delivered a few nights a week — maybe getting their groceries delivered once or twice a week. What we’re seeing is that even as the world starts moving again, people are keeping that new normal. For our business, those two dynamics are really, really positive. Those things are here to stay.

If I were to scroll through your past order receipts, what kind of food would I find?

Well, ordering food delivery is often not a one-person game. What you’re going to find is the shared intersection of orders between my wife and I. Italian food is probably our number one order. There’s a restaurant on Dundas West, near where we live, called Node, which is our most frequented. It’s fantastic.

Thai food is probably number two — Sukhothai is a big one at the top of our list as well. And then we often will order, one morning a weekend, a breakfast. There’s a place called the Breakfast Room where we’ll get bagels and breakfast sandwiches and stuff like that.

What’s Uber Freight been doing these days, especially now that there’s been a lot of coverage around supply chain issues? What’s the growth potential for Uber Freight at this point?

Freight is an interesting business. The trucking corridor between Canada, the US and Mexico is one of the most active in the world. Uber Freight is trying to do in a lot of ways what Uber Rides did for the for-hire vehicle industry. Freight is top of mind for everyone now because logistics issues are front page news every day. People aren’t getting their packages as quickly as they’re used to. Costs are going up.

Logistics is buzzy right now, but really, the freight industry has been broken for years. The experience on the driver’s side of the equation has been subpar for decades. There’s not a lot of new truck drivers entering the industry. Twenty years ago, the average age of a truck driver was mid-30s. Now, it’s mid-50s. Truckers are aging out because the driver experience is tough. It’s a tough gig, inherently. But the balance of power between brokers, drivers and fleets has been off.

What Uber Freight is trying to do is fix that by trying to bring a ton of efficiency into a very outdated system. I remember when we launched Freight, we were looking at photos of one of the largest freight brokerages in the world. They had a room the size of a high school gym full of fax machines. That’s how they were processing orders and matching up shippers with carriers to deliver those orders. If you can put on a layer of software that connects people who want to send things with drivers who want to provide them, in real time, it just brings an element of automation and efficiency that just hasn’t existed.

Uber hasn’t always had the best relationship with cities that try to regulate it. In 2016, Uber threatened to pull out of Toronto after city council considered new rules for ride-hailing. Would Uber approach that situation differently if you were making that decision today?

I think the very short answer is that Uber today would take a different approach in terms of how we delivered our messages on what we think is best for riders and drivers, in how we engage with cities, and how we try to partner to find workable solutions with government. What we wouldn’t do is compromise on our principles as to what is good for consumers and what is good for earners on the platform.

We’re a company that has a vision. We believe that flexibility and the changing nature of work is a good thing for society, and a good thing for people who choose to play in that space. We believe that consumers have a right to choice — to reliable, safe and affordable transportation. Those principles remain true, and we’re going to fight for them. But how we do that, I think, has evolved, and we haven’t always gotten it right.

Correct me if I’m wrong — are you Canadian? Did you come from the States?

I’m Canadian. I was born and raised in Thornhill, just north of the city, and then I joined Uber in 2012 to be the general manager for the Toronto business as we launched here, and I’ve managed to keep my roots here. I’ve been with the company now for 10 years in May and I’ve mostly been stationed in Toronto despite being in global roles. And I can go into all the reasons for that. I love the city. I love my family, who is based here, but also, the nature of work has changed. Uber has a very global footprint and Toronto has become a really important hub for us. We’ve got more than 300 full-time employees based out of our office here.

Uber is the largest ride-sharing platform in Canada, and greenhouse gas emissions from cars here are pretty significant. How do you plan on reducing your footprint in the coming years?

We’ve got pretty big ambitions to become a zero-emissions company. We’ve committed to being zero emissions in major cities in Canada by 2030 — and we’ve been pretty public about those commitments. We’re also publishing transparency reports to hold ourselves accountable for delivering on that, and we’re working with third parties and NGOs to make sure that the way we do accounting for this and talk about it is all above board.

The biggest thing we need to do is help the people who earn money on the platform transition to electric vehicles. There’s a bunch of things we’re doing to incentivize that. We offer drivers today an extra dollar per trip if you’re doing trips in an EV, which is meaningful in terms of driver earnings. We also have a product called Uber Green in hundreds of cities around the world, including Toronto, where you can order a car and get a ride in a zero-emission or low-emission vehicle like a hybrid. We charge extra for that, so drivers earn extra money on top.

Is an extra dollar a trip really going to matter if an EV costs $35,000 or $40,000?

It does make a difference. Depending on your trips per hour, you could be earning $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 more a year — and that does help defray the increased cost of ownership. And then you’re operating costs are lower because typically repairs are lower on electric vehicles. We’ve negotiated best-in-class rates for charging and vehicle purchases for drivers. We’ve got vehicle solutions providers, so if you want to rent an electric vehicle on the platform instead of buying it, you can do that. We know riders want companies to be green — and it’s going to be better for drivers in the long run.

Uber and United Food and Commercial Workers reached an agreement to provide flexible benefits for drivers, and advocate for drivers. But I noticed the agreement doesn’t grant drivers full employment rights, something drivers have been critical of. Would Uber ever be open to providing full employment rights for its drivers in future?

At the forefront of our minds, always, when talking about the future of work on our platform is: what do drivers want? What you see, time and again, when we survey our drivers, is that the vast majority do not want to be full-time employees. And the vast majority value flexibility in addition to earnings, first and foremost, when they think of choosing where to spend their time. Our goal is to advocate for what earners in the gig economy want — and what they want is flexibility on top of earnings.

That said, the way many rules and regulations are written today is such that we can’t provide additional benefits or protections without deeming earners on the platform as employees. What we’re trying to do is work with third parties who have shared interests, such as UFCW, and then talk to governments to roll out systems that allow us to provide benefits and protections that we can’t currently provide under the existing frameworks, while holding true to what earners on the platform want — which is flexibility. That means not full-time employment.

Why not give people the option to work full time if they want, but then also have a part-time, flexible option?

Systems like that are ones we can look at. There are places where we partner with fleets, who pay drivers, and they work on the platform. I think there are trade-offs with every model. We had a transition to a model like I just described, in Switzerland — the vast majority of delivery people actually left the category because it wasn’t what they wanted. You can look at tiered systems, you can look at hybrid structures — we’re really open to anything as long as it’s in the best interest of what earners want.

Where is there left for Uber to expand in Canada? Where do you go from here?

We have very bold ambitions. There are still places where we want to launch or expand. But I think our goal is also to help eliminate individual car ownership, and the way you do that is by providing a multi-modal suite of solutions for users to make it easier to give up your car. I think what you’ll see us do is work to integrate things like public transit into Uber systems and services, work to integrate micro-mobility options like bikes and scooters — work to really provide consumer choice.

On the delivery side of things, the overarching goal for Uber is to go anywhere and get anything. We think the convenience of instant, on-demand delivery — having the whole city at your fingertips — is something that is here to stay as well. There’s a real opportunity for us to help all merchants connect with consumers and offer same-day delivery and give them the best of their city.

We really are just getting started. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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