Saturday, July 13, 2024


It’s very difficult to understand the City Council’s leadership on regulating taxis and on-demand car services such as Uber and Lyft. But let’s come back to that in a moment – because there’s something even more confusing in how the issue is being handled:

Opinion boxCouncillor Tim Toomey has filed motions for the council to reconsider three votes on that topic that it took unanimously this month. He hasn’t responded to requests to explain why.

Back in March, during debate on a different topic, he made a motion to block fellow councillors from reconsideration and said it wasn’t because of his feelings about any votes that had been taken, but in the interests of having speedier meetings. He said he would “try to” take that step at every meeting from that point on, but he hasn’t done so even once – and now he’s filed for reconsideration four times for his own purposes.

It would be good if Toomey, who has said he thinks “the city is very transparent in everything we do,” would make an effort toward some transparency on this matter, as it is in no way clear what he intends.

That contributes to the frustration of city taxi drivers and their labor representative, Donna Blythe-Shaw, in what must already be an extremely frustrating situation: Taxi drivers must comply with every regulation in the book (a rule book of more than 60 pages, according to vice mayor Dennis Benzan) while drivers for car services do not.

No matter where you stand on regulation of taxis or services such as Uber, see if you can follow the council’s collective logic on the situation:

Councillor E. Denise Simmons says it is important for cars driven for Uber, Lyft and other companies to be identified as livery vehicles, because they are just like taxis. “That’s what they are,” she says, “because they are charging people to ride for a fee.”

But even if “that’s what they are,” Simmons still doesn’t believe in having the city take steps to enforce taxi or livery laws when it comes to the car services, “because I just don’t know how we would regulate that.” She wants to wait for the state. That is: Simmons is okay not enforcing laws she believes should be enforced, because she doesn’t know how to.

Is it right or even legal for the city to enforce laws for taxis but not for the car services? Don’t we have a License Commission and police for this reason? What kind of a precedent does this set?

Her position sets her at odds with Benzan, who wants to hold a Sept. 15 meeting of the council’s Economic Development Committee to discuss the city regulations she resists, “looking at some of the gaps we see in regulations promulgated by the state.” But this meeting is being held immediately before a state-level hearing on the same topics; in fact, the hours he seeks overlap by an hour with the state hearings. Can the city really know what gaps exist in proposed state law before legislators meet, given their ability to propose amendments? Should a meeting on the same topic be held at the same time, forcing stakeholders to choose which meeting to attend?

Update on Sept. 1, 2015: The suggested Sept. 15 date didn’t work out, according to the City Clerk’s Office, and a replacement date is being sought.

Back to Toomey, his move for reconsideration applies not just to two orders urging the state to move fast on its regulations, but to unilateral city action proposed by Benzan and city councillor Leland Cheung. It’s confusing: By moving for reconsideration, he suggests he wants to withdraw his support for both state and city action. So what does he support instead – keeping the status quo of heavily regulated taxis trying to compete with essentially unregulated Ubers?

The city has been in crisis over Uber one way or another since it sued the company nearly three years ago. The reason, as explained in a statement from public information officer Ini Tomeu: “The taxi industry is heavily regulated for reasons of public safety, consumer protection, and fair competition. To allow Uber to side-step the applicable laws and regulations goes against those principles.” And the License Commission proposed “Regulations for smartphone technology for taxicabs and limousines” that drew a firestorm of protest at a June 2014 meeting. But these efforts have fallen away, starkly illustrated by the fact that three months after that controversial meeting the commission took steps to belatedly insist that taxis take credit cards – and now that behind-the-curve achievement is cited as a point of particular pride by the retiring chairwoman of the commission, Andrea Spears Jackson, according to the Cambridge Chronicle.

As a first step, Toomey could explain his intentions with reconsideration to the public, taxi industry and to his colleagues. If he doesn’t want to answer email or voice mail, he could explain via his blog or Facebook page – or even in a tweet.

That could help clarify what the council’s Economic Development Committee does when it meets and the city’s approach in general to a conflict it identified so long ago but (as with so many of Cambridge’s most stubborn crises) hasn’t been able to focus on in any kind of coherent or consistent way.