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Bright apps of the big city

Will drone deliveries ever come to the Yukon? Do we even want them to?

On a trip Outside, most Yukoners have probably been asked incredulously how we survive Forty Below, roving packs of wolves or living so far from Toronto.

I ran into a new set of questions while speaking to some Silicon Valley folks in California. Now it’s “How do you get by without Uber?” They shake their heads sadly, as if we live in some kind of digital desert devoid of the lush instant services of the smartphone age.

I pointed out that we do have Amazon Prime.

But Amazon Prime is so 2005. You have to wait two days for your shipment!

I didn’t dare tell them that “days” might be optimistic in the case of shipments to the Yukon.

It was amazing to think of how many digital services people in San Francisco or Seattle use every day which didn’t exist a decade ago.

Amazon Now is a version of Prime that promises delivery within two hours. A friend was visiting Seattle and someone needed binoculars to watch a sailing race. A few taps on the smartphone later, a pair of binoculars was on the way. You can order everything from gadgets to groceries.

Restaurant orders arrive within an hour.

And we haven’t even seen Prime Air yet. In one of Amazon’s tests, a drone delivered a package with only 13 minutes from click to delivery.

Uber or Lyft will take you wherever you want to go, and you never have to explain your destination to the driver or fiddle with cash. Uber has also expanded into food delivery. UberEats may hit US$3 billion in sales this year, according to estimates reported in the Financial Times. Not bad for a service that was piloted as recently as 2014 and only serves around 100 cities so far.

Dockless digital bike-share companies like LimeBike and Spin seem to be everywhere. These systems don’t have docking stations. Instead the garishly painted bikes are just parked all over the city and you unlock them with your smartphone app and pay a few bucks electronically. At your destination you just leave the bike somewhere for the next app user to find it.

If you are downtown in these leading digital cities or on a university campus, you start to notice how pervasive these services have become. Apartment building and university dormitory lobbies are overflowing with Amazon packages. UberEats delivery bikes weave through parks and traffic. Digital bike-share bikes are parked all over the place.

So-called Gig Economy apps like TaskRabbit are also to be found nowadays in major cities. They match people looking for extra work without a full-time commitment with people who need help. TaskRabbit handles all kinds of things, from grocery shopping to temp jobs to assembling Ikea furniture.

Even old fogeys who still have their own cars are using apps. Waze is a navigation app that combines satellite positioning, a digital base map and input from millions of users about traffic jams, accidents and traffic challenges like one-way streets. Based on input from other users, Waze can tell you about detours, the location of the cheapest gas station on your route or even if you are driving through a high-crime area.

The big question is whether these digital inventions will reach smaller communities like ours. Think about things like electricity, cars, cable television and cell phones. All of these were invented Outside and, after a lag, arrived in the Yukon. But will our market be big enough that it ever makes sense to have a drone distribution centre in Whitehorse? Dawson City?

Some people will be happy to escape the world of drones, instant e-commerce gratification and robotaxis. Lots of Yukoners get by very well without cable television and cell phones. But the popularity of the new digital services suggests that many people will not want to escape these innovations. Expectations change with the generations. Not many Yukoners today would prefer to live without cars or electricity like in the 1910s or 1920s.

The big cities already exert a powerful centripetal force on capital and people, especially young people. We have to hope these digital innovations do not make the attractions of big cities even stronger relative to smaller towns.

Amazon Prime is already available in the Yukon. So is Waze. We have a family debate about whether it is faster to get from Riverdale to the airport via the Two Mile Hill or South Access Road. Waze knows the answer. The Two Mile Hill is 1.4 kilometres shorter, but the South Access Road is one minute faster.

Furthermore, Waze user data also tells you that Riverdale Rush Minute will add two minutes to your journey if you leave at 8:03am on Monday but that you can dodge the traffic by leaving before 7:35am.

We shall see if Lyft, UberEats, TaskRabbit, LimeBike and Amazon Now bloom here. Will they arrive eventually like cable television? Or will young people in the future move away to the bright apps of the big city.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.