What problem were Cambridge officials trying to solve when the city’s licensing commission proposed rules last week that would effectively kick Uber out of the city? Certainly it wasn’t public safety; Uber drivers haven’t been injuring passengers. It can’t have been traffic; Uber and similar smartphone-based car services like Lyft haven’t overwhelmed the city with new vehicles. Nor could officials have been concerned about protecting riders from deceptive pricing; the growing number of Uber customers suggests riders are happy with the service they’re getting.
One vocal special interest has been behind the backlash against Uber: taxi drivers. Uber cars are not taxis, since they can’t pick up someone hailing them on the street. Still, they’ve taken a big chunk out of taxi business. No doubt, many cab companies face a difficult future if Uber and similar companies continue to grow. But it’s disappointing that Cambridge officials seem to interpret their duty as applying new red tape to protect the existing cab industry, instead of supporting a service that many Cantabrigians obviously prefer.
Unfortunately, regulation of car services does not have a very consumer-friendly history. Historically, cities like Cambridge and Boston have controlled the number of taxi medallions available. The original limitations date to the Depression, when there was a glut of taxi drivers and cities sought limits as a matter of public safety. But the medallion system has long outlived that initial purpose and morphed into a kind of sinecure. Medallion holders were largely protected from new competition, leaving little incentive for innovation and fewer options for riders. Indeed, if the existing taxi system were meeting their needs, Uber never would have caught on.
Founded in 2009, Uber takes advantage of technology to render the privileges of medallion-holders less valuable. Taxi drivers still have the exclusive right to pick up riders waving from street corners, but to many smartphone users, summoning an Uber car over the Internet is just as good. The complaint now made by taxi medallion holders is that it’s not a fair competition, since Uber doesn’t have to comply with the same regulations as taxis. But buses and trains don’t have to comply with the same regulations as each other either, even though they compete for the same customers.
That’s not to say Uber should be entirely unregulated — if legitimate problems arise, then regulators should address them. But Uber shouldn’t be subjected to unnecessary regulations just to give a competing type of service a lifeline. Rules exist to protect the public, not the industry.