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Cambridge mulls rules that would regulate Uber

Uber and services like it are putting pressure on taxi drivers.

REUTERS

Uber and services like it are putting pressure on taxi drivers.

The fight about upstart car service Uber has returned to Cambridge.

After losing a 2012 court battle to keep Uber Technologies Inc. from operating in the city, Cambridge regulators have proposed a robust set of new policies that, if passed, would severely restrict the service and similar companies that let riders hire private drivers using smartphone apps.

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The far-reaching recommendations from the Cambridge License Commission would require Uber and other upstart transportation companies to acquire dispatch licenses, significantly change the way they operate, and adopt new fee structures. The very smartphone technology those businesses use would be regulated and licensed by the city.

Uber is increasingly coming under fire from cabbies, taxi companies, and regulators around the globe. Last week, cabbies in London and Paris staged protests against the company.

The chief complaint among taxi drivers is often the same: Uber unfairly competes against them using technology as a way to get around stringent regulations.

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“Every innovative industry that comes through this country, and makes this country great, has regulation,” said Donna Blythe-Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Boston Taxi Drivers’ Association, who spoke at a crowded Cambridge License Commission hearing Tuesday evening to support regulations for Uber.

But those against regulating Uber also came out in force, cramming into a small meeting room in the basement of a Cambridge municipal building.

The overflow crowd grew so frustrated with the lack of space that some demanded a larger room.

License Commission chairwoman Andrea Jackson said the policy group was just starting to consider the new regulations.

“This is on our agenda tonight simply to talk to commissioners,” Jackson said. “We recognize [the proposals] are not perfect.”

Still, Joel Fleming, a Cambridge resident, said the regulations are aimed “at the heart of Uber’s business model. This can not be the starting point.”

“The message that these regulations send is that this city hates innovation,” Fleming said.

Just four years old, Uber has expanded rapidly in Boston and is the transportation mode of choice for many young professionals.

The service uses location technology built into smartphones so drivers can locate riders. It also uses the smartphone to calculate fares and charge passengers who register their credit card information with Uber.

In many areas, including in Boston and Cambridge, the spread of these new companies has left transportation officials struggling with how to regulate them.

“We are not trying to shut down Uber,” Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi said, stressing that the License Commission proposals “aren’t the end regulations. That’s to begin the conversation.”

Still, Rossi said, “we think it needs a bit of regulation so we, as a community, can say that it is safe,” Rossi said. “Somewhere in the middle should be reasonable regulation.”

The scope of the proposal has alarmed many Uber customers who took to social media on Tuesday to rally around the company.

Uber itself also encouraged customers to send messages to Cambridge officials and show up at the meeting.

“For a city known for its innovation and progressiveness, it is shocking that Cambridge would cling so blindly to the past and ban an innovation that thousands of its residents and small businesses value and use on a daily basis,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Even more unbelievably, there has been no meaningful effort to seek public input on the proposal, nor publicize the process or timeline for passing it.”

Cambridge Mayor David Maher said the city has no “intention to back away from the process” and that the License Commission discussion would be the first of many talks regarding Uber.

When Cambridge first sought to ban Uber in 2012, it took issue with the way the company uses GPS technology in smartphones to calculate fares.

The city argued that technology was not an approved device for charging taxi fees, an opinion that did not prevail in court.

Under the new proposed rules, Cambridge would consider any device used to calculate fares a taximeter subject to regulation.

The rules also state that car services can’t base rates on customer demand — a factor Uber sometimes uses to calculate fees.

Uber has built a large customer base in Cambridge, especially in the technology hub of Kendall Square, where riders appreciate the company’s service for its convenience as much as for its use of innovation to upend the conventional transportation.

“We would like to think that Cambridge, Mass., is on the forefront,” said Matthew George, founder of a startup bus company called Bridj, which uses rider data to determine more direct routes. “So we are always concerned when there is any proposal for legislation that is anti-innovation, especially in a city like Cambridge.”

But even some who admire Uber favor a degree of regulation for the service.

“Just a few regulations here and there,” said Habtamu Tadesse, 25, a part-time Cambridge cab driver who is also running a health care startup.

Tadesse has occasionally driven for Uber and said the idea behind it was “one of the smartest concepts ever.”

Still, he can understand Cambridge’s desire to start to regulate the service as it grows and increasingly cuts into the taxi business.

“As long as it’s fair,” Tadesse said, “I welcome competition.”

More coverage:

Opinion: In Cambridge vs. Uber, city hurts its reputation

Car service raises $1.2 billion

6/1: Tom Keane: In taxis’ battle with Uber, ugly endgame looms

5/27: Opinion: Uber vs. taxis

5/23: Taxi drivers say Uber threatens their livelihoods

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell
@globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.
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