UTTRI Faculty Snapshot: Associate Professor Shauna Brail

Ride-hailing as an industry has demonstrated that technology and mobility have the potential to improve the ways in which people move from place to place.

– Shauna Brail

Shauna Brail on St. George Street

Shauna Brail on St. George Street, University of Toronto

What aspects of transportation does your research address?

My research looks at the impact of ride-hailing on cities.

In the first stage, I examined the role of government and processes of developing regulation as ride-hailing came to be accepted across Canada, particularly in Toronto.

Currently, my focus is on the global economic geography of ride-hailing. I’m examining the location of firm headquarters, the global scale of operations, rapid and strategic transitions in terms of services provided, and the unique ways in which ride-hailing operates in different regions around the world. In Jakarta, for instance, most ride-hailing takes place on motorcycles.

What other important aspects of transportation does it connect to?

Ride-hailing firms have embraced a variety of mobility options and technologies. From collaborations to develop autonomous vehicles that might someday operate on ride-hailing networks, to working with transit agencies to provide alternatives for first and last mile services (whether by car, bike or scooter), to developing models that encourage pooling – ride-hailing as an industry has demonstrated that technology and mobility have the potential to improve the ways in which people move from place to place. There are, to be sure, numerous challenges that still need to be worked out.

How did you arrive at your area of interest?

I’ve had a long-standing fascination with cities and the ways in which industrial and economic change results in urban change.

When the early conversations about whether or not to regulate or reject ride-hailing were taking place in Toronto a few years ago, I was completely hooked by the idea that municipal governments were playing a significant role in not just deciding whether to permit ride-hailing as a form of ground transportation, but also by the notion that a small number of firms were having a very outsized impact on cities – based on a fairly simple, yet massively disruptive, approach to urban transportation.

Also, this work is part of a SSHRC-funded initiative called Creating Digital Opportunity (CDO), a Canada-wide research network examining the impact of digitization on Canada.

What motivates you to continue research in this area?

This is a fast-moving field – it’s one of those areas where as soon as you’ve written something, it’s probably already out of date.  And while that can be frustrating, it’s also kind of exciting to work in an area that’s undergoing rapid change, that’s characterized by uncertainty, and that has the potential to impact cities around the world and the billions of people who live in them.

What impact have you achieved or do you hope for?

It’s still very much a work in progress, but there are two things that stand out.

The first is to add to evidence that ride-hailing is an urban phenomenon and one which is increasingly accepted by local governments.  So, for instance, municipal governments across Canada have moved quite rapidly to develop policies, regulations and ride-hailing pilots. Within the next year, it is likely that 28 of Canada’s 30 largest municipalities will have some kind of regulations in place to govern ride-hailing.

Second, while many researchers and policymakers are concerned with issues around congestion, labour practices, impact on transit ridership (all of which are critical), this work focuses on the economic geography of ride-hailing. When we look at Toronto’s role in ride-hailing as a global industry, we acknowledge that Toronto is essentially a secondary centre of activity that draws on the presence of the automotive industry, tech sector, engineering talent, and welcoming regulatory environment. One question is, is that sufficient? And if not, what could we do differently?

It’s been a lot of fun meeting with entrepreneurs, legislators, policy experts, academics and critics to learn about their various perspectives. Also, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really fantastic undergraduate research assistants.

Posted January 11, 2019


Shauna Brail, PhD is Associate Professor, Teaching Stream in the Urban Studies Program, Associate Director, Partnerships & Outreach, School of Cities at the University of Toronto and from January to June 2019, is Director of the Master of Urban Innovation program at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is also Director of the Urban Studies Program (on leave until July 2019).

UTTRI Faculty Snapshots is a series highlighting UTTRI associated faculty.