Commonwealth Magazine has had some good articles over the last many months about Uber & other “ride-sharing” applications. I’ve recently run through Uber is as Transportation Outlaw and Ridesharing Choices Must Be Protected but both are missing the point as most of the noise we hear on this topic comes from one industry group (ride-sharing apps) or the other (the established taxi industry).
I’ve found the coverage on ride-sharing apps (Uber included) to be very binary. Arguments typically fall into an “Uber is bad/Uber is destroying jobs for hardworking taxi drivers/Uber is flaunting local regulations” or “Uber is amazing/Politicians Don’t Understand The Sharing Economy”.
What I think these apps really show us is that local regulation, including those that have entrenched the taxi monopolies around the country for decades, don’t work in the new, border-less, hyper-connected world we’re now finding ourselves in.
I’ve been a casual Uber user for a few years now, and what Uber has provided to me over taxis is:
- Consistently better service than I typically get from a taxi
- The same quality of service everywhere
The first point is very easy to understand – Uber has high standards for their drivers and their cars. Poor reviews quickly take bad drivers off the road. And because drivers are self-employed, they’re motivated to offer a quality product that meets Uber’s standards. This is an area where medallion owners could compete, but without an easy outlet for passengers to summon a “good” taxi (Besides Uber), it’s hard for medallion owners to differentiate themselves (Do you ever pay attention to the cab company operating your taxi? I don’t).
The second point is what I think is really the most prescient. No matter where I am in the world (Boston, Cambridge, Brookline or New York, San Francisco, London or suburban Northern Virginia) I can always get an Uber that will take me where I need to go. When dealing with taxis, because they’re regulated locally, they’re often remiss for driving over town lines because they’ll have to drive back before they can get another fare. And because each town licenses taxis separately, you could have the best service with clean cars and courteous drivers picking you up in one town, and then receive abysmal service on the return leg from another town. The worst example I’ve seen of this is arriving in Washington D.C. at Reagan National – taxis from all over come there to pick-up passengers (Not like Logan where only Boston taxis can pick you up). You may have to have 4 or 5 taxis pass you up until you find one that can take you where you want to go (“Going to Alexandria? Sorry, I’m DC only. Going to DC? Sorry, I only do Fairfax.”).
Why in this modern day & age, when I go to Brookline for dinner with friends, and then Cambridge to see a show before returning home to Boston, are the taxis all licensed and regulated differently in each town? Uber makes it simple and I always get exemplary service.
So should Uber and other ride-sharing apps be regulated like our taxis currently are? In part. But maybe our taxis should also be regulated like Uber.
We should reconsider many aspects of our taxi licensing. Does it make sense for each town & city to license & regulate its taxis separately? Not really – taxis in our metro-region should all follow the same rules. Should Uber drivers face more stringent background checks? Possibly – so let’s have the State Police do all background checks for all taxi, livery & ride-share drivers. Does it make sense to have medallion owners collude with local politicians to keep an artificial cap on how many taxis serve each town? Probably not – let’s scrap the medallions and allow owner-operators to pay a flat annual fee each year for the privilege of being licensed by the state. What about fares? Set them at the regional level – a taxi around Boston shouldn’t be priced the same as a taxi around Amherst (But a taxi in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge or Somerville probably should be).
This shouldn’t be a binary choice – Uber or Taxi. We should allow the disruptive aspects of Uber to let us see how local regulation of what’s now a regional business doesn’t make any sense and setup a process where the taxi industry & Uber can compete on a level playing field. Each may lose out a bit, but it gives consumers the choice they demand with the protections they deserve.