UPDATE: The city of Cambridge is hilariously backtracking on its effort to ban Uber, having apparently not realized that people actually like the service Uber provides, and having created a PR sh!tstorm that it surely did not see coming. We’ve now got Richard Rossi, the City Manager, swearing up and down that the city is absolutely “not trying to shut down Uber” – even though that is essentially what the proposed regulations would have done within Cambridge. No, no, Cambridge just wants to talk about liability insurance and background checks, says Rossi. That’s great, but that’s not what the regulations currently on the table are about. Not to worry, says Rossi – those draft regulations are just “to begin the conversation.” Well, they’ve certainly done that, though probably not the way Cambridge anticipated.
I have an idea, Cambridge. Instead of trying to make something that works pretty well work less well, why don’t you fix the godawful regulation of the taxi industry? That’s the correct way to ensure a level playing field among competing car services. Better yet, why doesn’t the state legislature step in and deal with this on a statewide basis? I cannot imagine the justification in this day and age for regulating car services city by city.
The City of Cambridge has a long-running battle with Uber, the “on demand” car service that has traditional taxi operators up in arms. If you’ve never used Uber, here’s basically how it works: you create an account and give it your credit card number; you download the app onto your smartphone; you summon a car via the app (as long as you are within Uber’s service area, which at this point in Boston extends as far south as Randolph and Avon, as far north as Andover, and as far west as Framingham); the car shows up maybe 10-15 minutes later (depending on where you are and how busy things are) and takes you where you want to go; the bill (which includes tip) is emailed to you and shows up on your credit card statement.
A couple of years ago, after the state Department of Public Safety allowed Uber to operate in Massachusetts (after initially refusing to do so), Cambridge sued to stop it, but lost in court.
Now, Cambridge is trying a new approach, namely, regulating Uber out of the city. According to Uber’s summary of Cambridge’s proposed new regulations (I can’t vouch for the summary’s accuracy), the city would
- Set a $50 minimum price for any non-taxi car ride, regardless of time or distance
- Prohibit you from requesting a ride on-demand from anyone other than a taxi
- Forbid any technological device from being part of fare calculation during a ride
What a ridiculous approach. If Cambridge wants to solve the problem (and I agree that in some respects it is a problem) of unfair competition between services like Uber and the traditional taxi industry, it needs to allow the taxi industry to come into the 21st century, not force other services back into the 20th.
I think most people would agree that it is reasonable to require car services to conduct background checks on their drivers, to require minimum levels of insurance, and to enforce other basic safety measures; I certainly do. But the taxi medallion system has proven itself a disastrous failure and should be scrapped; GPS-based fare calculations are perfectly reasonable and should be permitted; the city-by-city approach of the taxi business where a Boston-based cab can’t pick up a fare in Cambridge is stupid and should be eliminated; calling a car via a smartphone app is an excellent technological innovation that should be embraced across the industry; and so forth.
Cambridge is in danger of taking a big step down exactly the wrong path if it adopts these proposed regulations after its public meeting tonight (which is at 6 pm in the basement conference room of the Lombardi Building, 831 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge). Especially in a city that has recently seen a major tech boom in the Kendall Square area, effectively banning Uber (which is what these regulations would do) would be a huge mistake.