Boston-area taxi riders know that the region’s taxicab industry needs more innovation, not less. Flagging down rides during peak hours can be difficult, and fares are among the highest in the nation. Unfortunately, the ongoing attempt to block a smartphone application called Uber that connects riders with livery cars shows that instead of embracing technology and using it to their advantage, the state’s cab owners and drivers are fighting against it.
Since last October, Uber has enabled Boston-area users to hire town cars with the press of a button on their phones. After users summon a ride, the app uses GPS to identify the closest available town car and reliably estimate how long it would take to arrive. If a user accepts that ride, he is shown the name and photo of his driver, and he can follow the car on a map as it approaches, helping him to better time his trip to the curb. Fares are slightly higher than for a regular cab, but because they include tips, the end result is an easier experience for about the same price.
Despite Uber’s benefits to consumers, the city of Cambridge carried out a “sting” operation and ticketed an Uber driver in May. That incident led to the Massachusetts Division of Standards declaring Uber’s GPS-based metering system illegal because it is not regulated by state and federal governments. In its decision, the agency ordered Uber to stop using its iPhone-based system until the National Council on Weights and Measures and the National Institute of Standards and Technology could establish rules for its use — a process that could take months, if not years. In effect, the ruling would have protected the industry’s status quo in the name of consumer protection while actually harming those consumers. The governor’s office rightly intervened, and the ban was swiftly reversed, but cab drivers have vowed to continue the fight.
It’s understandable why Massachusetts cabbies, many of whom have invested hard-earned money to buy or rent medallions, would bristle at an upstart competitor. Uber has brushed up against similar tensions in some of the 14 other cities in which it operates. But each of those cities has found ways for Uber to exist side-by-side with current taxicab services. Boston, and the state of Massachusetts, should do the same.