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The Podium

Uber vs. taxis

Hundreds of cabs honked their horns in protest in Boston in front of the Uber headquarters. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Hundreds of cabs honked their horns in protest in front of the Uber headquarters. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

It took some guts.

On Thursday, taxi drivers slowly rolled their cars around the Boston offices of Uber, the ride-sharing company, to protest the lack of regulation in the industry. Whereas cabs are overseen by law enforcement, Uber’s cars and drivers face no licensure requirements, no metering and rate standards, no twice-yearly police inspection, no special training by the Boston Police Department’s Hackney Unit.

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The complaint that Uber and similar companies are playing by a different set of rules is easy enough to understand. Even so — guts.

Taxi union representatives grumble that Uber is a threat to public safety, but they offer no evidence that riding in an Uber cab is less safe than in a licensed cab. And the union doesn’t seem to be concerned about the public safety threat presented by limousines, which, like Uber cars, aren’t regulated by the Hackney Unit.

Meanwhile, as a bike commuter, I deal everyday with taxis puttering along in the cycle lane, trolling for customers. Cab drivers go as fast or as slow as they please, stop anywhere they like, make insane U-turns in the midst of dense traffic to chase dispatches. They seem, on the whole, to cultivate equal contempt for the rules of the road and for common sense. I get it. It’s tough dealing with the rest of us Boston drivers and cyclists and pedestrians. But who could honestly argue that regulation makes for better drivers? Employees of the Hackney Unit say they receive 10 to 15 complaints about cab drivers every day, according to a report commissioned by the city and released in October of last year.

And in spite of licensure and training, many taxi drivers are not great at their jobs. According to that same report, cabs respond to only 78 percentof dispatch requests in Boston. They are more responsive than average downtown, in the Back Bay, Jamaica Plain, Charlestown, Brighton, Beacon Hill, the South End. But if you need a cab in Mattapan, it will arrive, on average, half the time. Dorchester and Roxbury also get low marks. Make of that what you will, but it may have something to do with where the tourists are, where the money is, where the tips are.

The report also makes clear that cabs fail to meet rider needs during peak times. During weekday rush hour and in the wee, drunken hours of Saturday morning, demand far outstrips supply. At 11 p.m. on a weekend, only 30 percent of rides arrive within twenty minutes of request. At 1 a.m., when the bars are disgorging customers at a rapid clip, only 10 percent do. Uber is making up for the deficit.

Whether a taxi will arrive, and when it does, is a guessing game. By contrast, Uber has a handy smart phone app that gives the rider the precise location of her car and an accurate estimate of its arrival time. To promote security, the driver’s name and photo are also provided, along with the make and model of the vehicle. In addition, transactions run automatically through the app; no money changes hands, which improves the safety of both passenger and driver. Cabs cannot compare on this front. And, even without regulation, every Uber car I’ve ridden in Boston and elsewhere has been clean and mechanically sound.

That doesn’t mean every customer is satisfied with Uber or that the city should ignore it. But it’s pretty rich to hear cabbies complain about their competitors’ poor performance, given that according to the city’s own report, taxis leave a great deal to be desired. And it is not as though taxi companies haven’t benefited from their arrangement with the city. Sure, medallion owners have to put up with regulation, but in exchange, they gained a lucrative monopoly over cab services that would have continued in perpetuity were it not for the distributed system enabled by smart phones and the Web. Shift drivers, on average, make $60,000 per year, which is either a solid median income or nearly twice the metro area’s per capita GDP, depending on who is crunching the numbers. Not bad considering that the only real skill cab drivers offer—expert navigation — has been obviated by GPS.

A level playing field is a wonderful thing, but while cabbies are driving in circles, Uber is building a product that people want to use. The cab companies have refused to improve, complacently relying on their monopoly to see them through. Now that there is a better option available, they are stuck with an ugly fare.

Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.
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