Saturday, May 18, 2024
A Tuesday hearing on regulating app-based car services drew a standing-room-only crowd, as shown in this panoramic shot tweeted by at attendee. (Photo: Matt Cadwallader)

A Tuesday hearing on regulating app-based car services drew a standing-room-only crowd, as shown in this panoramic shot tweeted by at attendee. (Photo: Matt Cadwallader)

The furor over regulation of app-driven ride programs hasn’t calmed since Tuesday’s meeting of the License Commission, when city officials explained repeatedly to an overflow crowd of agitated drivers and riders that the night was about “starting the dialogue and getting the input.”

“This was part of a wide – really wide – net that was thrown out to start the conversation, but there’s not going to be a decision tonight,” commission chairwoman Andrea Spears Jackson said at the start of a nearly two-hour hearing about regulation of taxis, limos, livery cars, rogue taxis and app-based services such as Uber, Lyft and SideCar. “This is not even a draft. This will not be passed.”

The commission, city manager, mayor and city councillor were contacted by drivers and customers angry about the draft “Regulations for smartphone technology for taxicabs and limousines” that Uber’s blog warned would set a $50 minimum for any non-taxi ride taken, no matter the distance, and limit the app innovations of the ride startups to the taxi industry they were created to challenge. Uber and others urged a Twitter campaign that turned into a hashtag flood – 1,298 tweets from 748 users, according to CCTV blogger Saul Tannenbaum, who called it “the first municipal hashtag activism in Cambridge.”

“Cambridge is a city where even important public meetings draw small numbers and a city councillor can get elected with just over a thousand votes,” Tannebaum wrote. “A one-day campaign that engaged close to 750 people is a small earthquake when it comes to Cambridge politics.”

Jackson’s assurances at the commission hearing didn’t end the flood of tweets, and the commission’s executive director, Elizabeth Lint, said at the end of the Wednesday business day that “we literally have 400 emails” that came in since the hearing, as well as contacts from media such as The Today Show.

Draft draws criticism

People speaking at the hearing mocked typos in the draft as “showing a lack of care” and told commissioners they should use California’s law as a model, also praising legislators in Colorado and Washington, D.C., for having “partnered with Uber and its competitors.” Jackson said she welcomed a look at other regulations, saying “that would help us instead of feeling like we were reinventing the wheel, and obviously not too well.”

Lint would not say who wrote the draft regulations or whether they were written after study of others laws put in place since the app-based car services launched around 2010.

“The more we say, the more people will twist and turn it,” Lint said, but she assured that the draft had been written over the course of months in a “very thoughtful process.”

Taken by surprise

The commission was taken by surprise by the level of interest in the regulations, she said, and by the time it was clear a larger meeting space might be needed, it was too late to move the venue under state open-meeting law. As a result, there were about 100 people gathered in a room meant for less than half that number, causing stand-room-only conditions in a room that quickly became stifling and another 40 or so people to linger in a hallway, unable to hear what was being said by unamplified speakers.

“Potentially we could have put a sign on the door” and moved the meeting across the street to the senior center, but “that raised a myriad of problems,” Lint said, citing logistics of a spur-of-the-moment venue change such as making sure the room was available and had enough seats. The next hearing on the app-based car services would be held there, Lint and Jackson suggested, but it wasn’t clear when that would be.

Charges leveled

The Tuesday hearing began with lengthy testimony from Meghan Verena Joyce, general manager for Uber in Boston, and went on to hear from customers, Lyft drivers and current and former taxi drivers as well as Donna Blythe-Shaw, a representative for the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, many leveling and refuting various charges against each other about the competing services without any official determination of their truth.

Joyce talked about Uber’s strict adherence to safety and service measures and how its drivers are backed by “very high insurance standards,” saying “any ride requested through the app is insured with at least $1 million in liability insurance, which is 25 times what’s required by a taxi in Massachusetts,” although cab driver representative Peter Bruce later calling Uber’s insurance protection “spotty” and full of loopholes: “The insurance kicks in when the app is on, but there’s a lot of other time they’re driving around.” Joyce attempted a complex explanation after the meeting to answer Bruce, but in fact comments and actions by the National Insurance Association and California regulators and lawmakers lean strongly toward his position.

Blythe-Shaw’s statement that the car services were taking away between 30 percent and 40 percent of traditional taxi business were later called “anecdotal” without evidence, and she was ridiculed for her casually phrased accusations that “Uber wants to take over the transportation industry and deregulate every single [kind]. You’ll have Uber boat and you might have Uber bus, Uber train, Uber plane and maybe they’ll go into delivery of services up to delivering your first baby, who knows what they want to do.” But this also is closer to the truth than many in the crowd seemed to know: While Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick has drawn protests from Uber drivers by looking to a future of driverless cars, he has also been talking for months about making the company into an “urban logistics fabric” delivering products and services and rolled out an UberRUSH delivery service in Manhattan in April. (And Uber has, in fact, tried a plane service.)

“Wall Street is coming to take over our Main Street. And when that happens, what do you do after that without regulation?” Blythe-Shaw said. “This is not good old-fashioned American competition when you have a highly regulated industry and you have a totally unregulated industry competing for the same work.”

Beyond “adapt or die”

Many speakers urged the taxi industry to “adapt or die”and blasted a model that saw medallions trade hands for upward of $600,000 while drivers provided indifferent service in dirty cabs during typically low-paid 12-hour shifts. They called the city’s draft proposal “Luddite,” sending the message “this is a city that hates innovation” and ignoring that “a unique service needs to be regulated as such,” rather than be subject to regulations adapted from laws written decades before the technology that made it possible.

But the complexities of the situation were illustrated starkly in the testimony of two customers with impaired eyesight. Sassy Outwater said there was much to love about the ability to summon cars with an app, since being blind she had troubles hailing a taxi on the street, but also described being left stranded repeatedly and even sworn at by Uber drivers who refused to accept her service dog into their car – a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act that she had complained about several times to Uber. (Lyft drivers have never denied her a ride, she said, but neither had taxis.)

“I have been in touch with Uber many times … and they do agree with me that this is illegal and this is not to be tolerated, and then the same driver will show up – in one case, three times – and continue to refuse the service dog,” Outwater said. “So I’m not seeing the discipline followed through. I’m also not seeing training being implemented.”

An Uber driver testifying only about 10 minutes later did no favors to the company by saying he understood why drivers, especially those with allergies, might not want to accept a service dog in their car, because “a dog is a pet” he said to mass disapproval, going on to compare it to someone taking a ride with a snake.

Previous story: Lawsuits against Uber car service grow