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Taxi drivers say Uber threatens their livelihoods

The honks started just after 2 p.m Thursday, and continued for an hour, loud and incessant.

Taxis from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline circled the block around Uber headquarters near South Station, letting loose a steady torrent of honks that disrupted traffic and caused crowds to gather.

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About 30 Boston taxi drivers held signs, calling on Mayor Martin J. Walsh to establish a civilian commission that would oversee the burgeoning ride-sharing industry and establish stricter regulations for companies like Uber.

Donna Blythe-Shaw, a representative for the United Steelworkers and the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, said cabbies, concerned they could be driven out of business by unregulated ride-sharing companies, have waited long enough for reform. She said business is down 35 to 40 percent as a result of companies such as Uber, Lyft, and SideCar, companies that are not restricted by many of the regulations that drive up costs for taxi drivers.

Natalia Montalvo, spokeswoman for Uber Boston, called the taxi drivers’ protest misguided.

Uber, a startup founded in 2009, allows people to request a ride with a few taps on their smartphones. Originally, the service allowed customers to request a registered livery vehicle. Thursday’s protesters focused their ire on UberX, the company’s newer and more affordable option, which connects users with drivers willing to offer rides in their personal vehicles without commercial registration.

“People say this is good old-fashioned American competition,” Blythe-Shaw said. “But that’s nonsense, because it’s not a level playing field.”

An April 2013 Globe Spotlight Team investigation found rampant corruption in the Boston taxi industry, in which drivers struggle to make a living and are often exploited by fleet owners. The series prompted calls for the city’s taxi industry to be removed from the purview of the Boston Police Hackney Carriage Unit, which many consider ineffective. Despite calls for reform, little has changed.

On Thursday, Blythe-Shaw said the mayor should bring taxis, as well as Uber and the other ride-sharing companies, under the supervision of a civilian commission composed of taxi drivers, business leaders, transportation experts, and members of the elderly and disabled communities. Such a commission, she said, could set across-the-board requirements that would create more equity.

“It’s not rocket science,” Blythe-Shaw said. The mayor’s office and the Boston police commissioner had sent word, she said, that they planned to meet with taxi representatives.

Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for Walsh, said the mayor is putting together a transportation task force in coming weeks that will address many of the issues raised at Thursday’s protest, a task force that was recommended by Walsh’s transportation transition team in a report released last month. Norton said the mayor’s office is considering establishing a partnership with nearby municipalities for taxi oversight.

In a statement, Walsh said he is seeking an even-handed approach, saying that “we cannot turn a blind eye to public safety concerns around unregulated modes of transportation, but we also cannot condemn a popular, effective service that takes responsible steps to ensure the safety of their users.”

In a statement, Montalvo said taxi drivers should be more concerned with their own service. “Rich taxi medallion owners should spend their time improving customer service, serving underserved communities and investing in new, safe, and reliable vehicles, rather than complaining about what Bostonians already know: Uber is the safest, most affordable and reliable ride in Boston,” Montalvo said.

Currently, UberX drivers must pass a criminal background check. The company conducts quality reviews of drivers, based on feedback provided by customers. Those who order an UberX ride can track the progress of the car on their phone and are provided with a photo of the driver, license plate number, and vehicle make and model.

Blythe-Shaw said the city must demand more from the company: commercial driver’s licenses for all drivers; driver vetting by the Police Department; twice-yearly vehicle inspections; pricing policies posted inside the vehicles; and an elimination of “surge pricing,” which raises prices during periods of high demand.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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