Cambridge License Commission Discusses Crackdown on Ridesharing Services

UPDATED: June 24, 2014, at 10:23 a.m.

An array of taxicab drivers, ride-sharing partners, and customers appeared before the Cambridge License Commission last week as it met to discuss proposed regulations that would more strictly govern popular ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.

The drafted regulations would require services like Uber, whose mobile application connects passengers with for-hire vehicle drivers, to obtain city-sanctioned licenses and limit which devices may be used to calculate fares, among other rules. It would also force ride-sharing services to use prices set by the city, as taxicabs do currently.

These changes could effectively prohibit the operation of Uber, which uses a mobile application rather than a traditional meter and maintains a unique and independent pricing system. In June, the company completed a round of funding at a valuation of $18.2 billion.

The commission did not vote on the regulations, which, as preliminary drafts, “would not be passed” in current form, according to License Commission chair Andrea Spears Jackson.

In 2012, the City of Cambridge unsuccessfully sued to overturn a state ruling permitting the operation of services like Uber, citing the discrepancy between regulations pertaining to the quickly growing ride-sharing industry and those imposed on taxicab drivers, who are required to purchase costly medallions, undergo vehicle inspections, and purchase special insurance in order to operate. ITaxicab drivers protested outside Uber’s Boston headquarters in May by circling the company’s offices in their vehicles, honking horns and disrupting traffic at the building near South Station.

In a statement to the press last Tuesday, Cambridge Mayor David P. Maher lauded innovative transportation options within the city and promoted a fair, open discussion at the hearing.

“Years of careful investment, smart urban planning and targeted economic development in Cambridge have allowed for a transit-centered culture to emerge for people who not only live here, but come here to work every day,” Maher said in the statement. “We are the worldwide leader in innovation and we have no intention to back away from the progress we have made.”

Donna Blythe-Shaw, a spokesperson for the Boston taxi drivers union, said at Tuesday night’s hearing that ride-sharing services such as Uber have contributed between a 30- and 40-percent loss of business for local taxi services.

“Their drivers aren’t vetted, their cars are uninspected, [and] there’s no responsibility to the community or to any public entity,” Blythe-Shaw testified. “It’s not good old-fashioned American competition to have a highly-regulated and a clearly unregulated industry competing for the same work.”

Peter Bruce, a driver for Veterans Taxi, agreed with Blythe-Shaw that services like Uber have a competitive advantage over taxi companies like his own, particularly because of the discrepancy in insurance requirements.

“It is fictional that Uber is not a taxi,” Bruce said. “It is a taxi, and it should be regulated like a taxi, meaning that their insurance coverage should have to be as full as a taxi’s. It should have to [undergo] police checks, safety checks, safety checks of their vehicles just like we do, and be licensed by the police and relevant government entities.”

Aaron Ennis, a full-time driver who uses the ride-sharing application Lyft, expressed concern that the draft regulations were too restrictive, despite acknowledging that further regulation was necessary. According to Ennis, the growth of ride-sharing services largely stems from riders’ discontent with the quality and service of taxicabs and their drivers.

Among those testifying to the commission in favor of ride-sharing services was Meghan Verena Joyce '07, Uber’s Boston/Providence general manager and a Harvard Business School graduate. Joyce defended the standards of driver vetting, vehicle inspection, and safety enforced by the company upon its drivers, as well as its innovative approach to transportation services.

“This kind of software affords both professional and economic freedom for a lot of people in the Cambridge/Boston area,” she said.

A statement posted last Monday on Uber’s website urged supporters of the service and its peers to attend the License Commission meeting. Last Tuesday night, attendees spilled into the halls of the Cambridge municipal building in which the meeting was held. In the statement, the company cited the stricter regulations as anathema to innovation and progressiveness within the city.

—Staff writer Alexander H. Patel can be reached at alex.patel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexhpatel.

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