On Wednesday morning, scores of taxi drivers and medallion owners descended on a VFW post in Dorchester, surrounding the antique army tank in the parking lot with a sea of white cabs.
A similar meeting in 2016 between the taxi industry and regulators at the Boston Police Department’s Hackney Carriage Unit drew about a dozen participants. This year, nearly 200 filled the post’s function hall, ready to vent their pent-up frustrations at the unit’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Thomas Lema.
With their industry reaching a financial breaking point amid suffocating competition from ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, cabbies have accused the city and police department of ignoring their pleas to loosen taxi regulations. They also want a crackdown on what they say are improper pickups by gypsy cabs, black car services, and Uber drivers.
Lema, a 20-year Boston Police veteran who has directed the department since 2014, told the crowd that he understood the grim numbers: Taxi revenues have declined 40 percent over three years, and medallions today are worth maybe 10 percent of their peak value of $700,000.
“When I got here three years ago, I looked at Uber as a tsunami out in Boston Harbor,” Lema told the crowd. Now, he said, the tsunami has crashed ashore.
Taxi “drivers are discovering they can’t make money,” Lema added, “and I’m not sure what [the city] can do to change that.”
Lema described city proposals that could help the cab business: new cab stands in the Seaport, letting owners replace vehicles less frequently and buy used cars, and flat-rate fares from Logan Airport to popular hotels. And he pledged to respond to complaints about Uber and other competitors picking up passengers who flag them down on the street.
But the questions directed at Lema indicated some drivers had demands that far exceeded the authority of the police department, while others simply yearned for a return to better days.
“Since Uber came in, everything is working against us,” one driver said after Lema explained he couldn’t overrule Massport’s decision to allow Uber and Lyft pickups at Logan. “I just want to see something that gives hope to cab drivers.” Another shouted, “He’s got no answers!”
Lema urged the five major companies that provide dispatch services to Boston cabbies to agree on adopting a single smartphone app, saying it was the only way they could compete. He also cited Uber’s recent string of public relations crises in arguing that “there’s a good possibility people are coming back to taxis.”
But he acknowledged ride-hailing services had a big headstart.
“They have convenience,” Lema said. “No credit card, no cash, great service. That’s why the taxi business is down 40 percent.”
After an hour, dejected drivers slowly filed out of the building, leaving some of the medallion owners to meet with a bankruptcy attorney.
“Forty percent?” one driver said as the crowd moved outside. “What, are they going to wait for the business to lose 100 percent?”